Direct vs. Circumstantial Evidence in a Criminal Defense Case

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At the heart of every criminal case is the evidence. Whether the defendant has been caught red-handed committing a crime, or there is less credible proof that a crime occurred at all, the prosecution, defense, and jury will all focus their attention on the strength of the evidence at hand. In fact, in some cases, evidence is the difference between obtaining a “guilty” or a “not guilty” verdict. No matter the crime, when it comes to defending against false allegations, it is important to understand the difference between direct and circumstantial evidence.

Collection of Evidence for a Criminal Case

Evidence is collected by crime scene investigators and the police. While evidence is most commonly found at the scene of a crime, it can also turn up elsewhere. Depending on the nature of the crime, investigators may collect forensic evidence such as fingerprints, footprints, tire tracks, blood and other body fluids, hairs, fibers and fire debris. They also might take witness testimony, documents, photos, videos, or any facts that the State believes is relevant to a crime they believe occurred.

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Direct vs. Circumstantial Evidence

There are two main types of evidence, direct and circumstantial:

  • Direct evidence usually is that which speaks for itself: eyewitness accounts, a confession, or a weapon.
  • Circumstantial evidence usually is that which suggests a fact by implication or inference: the appearance of the scene of a crime, testimony that suggests a connection or link with a crime, physical evidence that suggests criminal activity.

Direct evidence can be very cut-and-dry, though it’s ultimately up to the fact finder to determine if a witness statement or confession is actually the truth. In other cases, where direct evidence is made up of a video recording showing the defendant committing a crime – for instance, a security video of theft taking place – then it will be much harder for a defense lawyer to discredit the evidence as fact.

Circumstantial evidence, however, relies on making logical inferences that lead the fact finder to present an intended fact as truth. For example, in a scenario where a suspect is seen running away from a murder scene with a weapon, there’d be circumstantial evidence that the suspect committed the murder. Absent any photo, video, or eyewitness accounts, there would not be direct evidence to assert that the suspect actually committed the murder. After all, maybe he was just taking the weapon away to a safer area? Or, overcome with emotion, he picked up the weapon looking for the actual murderer?

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As you can see, circumstantial evidence is where a good criminal defense attorney will often look to build an effective defense strategy. A defense lawyer may try to cast doubt on the circumstantial evidence – if the premise can’t be proven, then the inference implying guilt cannot either. Alternatively, a criminal defender might argue that the circumstantial evidence leads to two or more reasonable conclusions, including one where the defendant is innocent.

Motion to Suppress Evidence

Just because there is direct or circumstantial evidence against a defendant does not mean that he or she is guilty. The government must follow strict rules and procedures for finding and securing evidence in order to protect a defendant’s constitutional rights. If a defendant’s constitutional rights with regards to evidence have been violated in any way, a defense lawyer can file a motion to suppress evidence with the court to get the evidence thrown out.

Some reasons a court may suppress evidence include:

Unlawful Search and Seizure. The Fourth Amendment protects against unlawful search and seizure. Police must have a valid search warrant or probable cause that a crime has been committed in order to search for and gather evidence.

Failure to Read Miranda Rights. The law requires that officers read a suspect’s “Miranda Rights” prior to questioning. Any statements given when the suspect did not know he or she had the right to remain silent, that anything they say could be used against them in court, or that they have the right to an attorney, would then be thrown out of court as not admissible.

Chain of Custody. Evidence must follow a properly cared for and documented chain of custody from its seizure by police to its presentation by the Prosecutor in court. If the chain of custody is broken at any moment, the evidence may be deemed inadmissible.

Defending Against Direct or Circumstantial Evidence

Because the seizure, analysis, and presentation of evidence requires in depth knowledge of constitutional law, reasoning, and government procedure, it makes sense to hire a criminal defense attorney with trial experience. As shown above, direct or circumstantial evidence does not necessarily mean an automatic “guilty” verdict – when your future is on the line, it’s best to go with a strong defense strategy to protect your rights and get the best possible outcome for your criminal case.

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Comments 1

  1. Janice says:

    It’s good to find content that tackles the difference between these two pieces of evidence when it comes to criminal cases. Some people get confused when we say circumstantial and direct evidence. Very knowledgeable Dan! Keep it up…

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