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Real Evidence in Law: Definition & Types

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  • 0:01 Definition of Real…
  • 1:45 Documentary vs.…
  • 2:31 Real vs. Demonstrative…
  • 2:50 Authentication
  • 3:23 Example
  • 4:42 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.

Real evidence describes any physical object that has a direct connection to a crime or civil action. This lesson will introduce you to some examples of real evidence and explain how real evidence is used in trials.

Definition of Real Evidence in Law

Television writers have a certain knack for making the trial process appear ultra-scintillating. The formula is a familiar one: A debonair, well-dressed attorney delivers a sweeping opening statement, only to later unveil a parade of damning and finely preserved pieces of evidence while the jury sits, captivated by it all. In reality, trials are far less glamorous. Even so, the presentation of evidence must have the same captivating effect to persuade real-life juries.

Real evidence describes any tangible object, the existence of which tends to prove a material fact. In other words, real evidence is any physical thing that has a direct connection to the crime or civil action. Real evidence is sometimes called physical evidence, though the latter terminology may refer more specifically to biological evidence depending on the context. Biological evidence is a form of real evidence relating to the human body. This may include blood, hair, or other types of DNA evidence.

Real evidence may include a weapon found at the crime scene, or a written contract in a business dispute. Any object that may be used to prove the truth of the matters asserted at the trial or the legal proceeding is considered real evidence.

There are two general types of cases that may proceed to a trial: criminal cases, where criminal conduct is punished, and civil cases, where private disputes between individuals and organizations are settled. The quality of evidence presented for a jury to consider is a critical element of any trial. Compelling, relevant evidence is very important because the government must prove that the defendant is guilty. A defendant, on the other hand, is under no obligation to prove his innocence. In a civil case, a lack of evidence of substance may result in the dismissal of the plaintiff's claim.

Documentary vs. Physical Evidence

Evidence introduced in the form of documents is called documentary evidence. Documentary evidence is presented so that the jury can examine the contents of the document itself. This may include a purchase order in a breach of contract case, or an instruction manual in a defective product action. Physical evidence differs from documentary evidence, although evidence may be both physical and documentary. Take for example a dispute over rent. The lease agreement signed by the tenant may be used as either documentary or physical evidence. If the landlord wants to prove that the tenant signed the lease agreement, the agreement itself will be offered as physical evidence of the signature. If the dispute concerns the terms of the agreement (that is, the amount of rent due, the limits on occupancy, etc.) the lease agreement will be used as documentary evidence.

Real vs. Demonstrative Evidence

Demonstrative evidence is another form of evidence that may be presented at trial. Demonstrative evidence includes any representation of an object. A photograph of the murder weapon or a diagram of the crime scene are examples of demonstrative evidence. A drawing depicting the trajectory of bullet would be another example of demonstrative evidence.

Authentication

Before a party can present evidence to the jury, the evidence must first be authenticated. Authentication is a process that allows a party to prove the evidence is genuine. In the case of real evidence, and physical evidence in particular, authentication may require an expert witness to testify that the object is real and not a fake. Authentication may also be achieved by proving the object's chain of custody. This means that a witness will testify to how the evidence was collected, where the evidence was tested (if any testing occurred), and who handled the evidence before trial.

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