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Direct Evidence: Definition, Law & Examples

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  • 0:02 What Is Direct Evidence?
  • 2:27 Laws Governing the Use…
  • 3:48 Examples in the Courtroom
  • 5:35 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Brittany McKenna

Brittany is a licensed attorney who specializes in criminal law, legal writing, and appellate practice and procedure.

In the criminal law context, direct evidence refers to direct proof of a fact. This lesson discusses the basic definition of direct evidence, as well as the laws governing this type of evidence and some examples of how the evidence is used.

What Is Direct Evidence?

Chances are you've probably heard the word 'evidence' used a lot. Maybe you've found yourself engrossed in a hot crime television drama. Or maybe you've served on jury duty. Regardless of your familiarity with the criminal justice system, you may be surprised to learn that not all forms of evidence are created equal.

The term direct evidence refers to any piece of evidence that stands alone to prove an assertion. In other words, it provides direct proof of a fact and doesn't require any type of inference. The testimony of an eyewitness is the most common form of direct evidence likely to be presented at a criminal trial. When a witness relates something that he directly observed or experienced, he is offering direct evidence of an event.

Circumstantial evidence, on the other hand, is a set of facts that, when taken together, lead to a desired conclusion. Unlike direct evidence, circumstantial evidence doesn't stand alone; it requires the use of logical reasoning to prove a fact. Forensic evidence, like a pattern of blood spatter on a wall, is a good example of circumstantial evidence; it requires the use of deductive reasoning to connect a suspect to a crime, because the evidence on its own doesn't prove anything.

Sometimes witnesses offer testimony that serves as circumstantial evidence of a fact. An example of this would be a witness who saw a suspect fleeing the scene of a crime. While the witness didn't actually see a crime being committed, his testimony may be used to create an inference that the suspect was involved in a crime.

Consider the following example that illustrates the difference between direct and circumstantial evidence. A hunter is taking a walk in the snowy woods. As he reaches a clearing, he watches a rabbit run into a hollow log. A second hunter enters the clearing and asks the first hunter if a rabbit has come by. The hunter's observation, the rabbit running into the log, is an example of direct evidence.

Now let's say that the first hunter, upon reaching the clearing, doesn't see the rabbit, but he does see rabbit-like footprints that lead up to the log. When the second hunter comes along and asks whether a rabbit has come by, the first hunter can only provide circumstantial evidence of the rabbit (the footprints) rather than direct evidence (seeing the rabbit himself).

Laws Governing the Use of Direct Evidence

Like most laws, the rules governing the use of direct evidence vary depending on the jurisdiction. A common rule is that evidence must be relevant before it can be used in a trial. This means that the evidence must be related to the case at trial.

Many states require that certain forms of direct evidence, like the actual signed contract in a contract dispute, must be properly authenticated before they can be shown to the jury. In other words, there must be some proof that the evidence is really what the person admitting the evidence says it is. This is easier than you would think. Usually, all authentication requires is the testimony of a witness to attest that the evidence is authentic.

Nearly every state prohibits the use of direct evidence of other crimes or bad acts to be used against a defendant. This is known as character evidence. Character evidence is generally inadmissible as proof that the defendant is simply prone to committing crimes.

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