“Direct” evidence is evidence that establishes a particular fact without the need to make an inference in order to connect the evidence to the fact. “Circumstantial” evidence, on the other hand, requires an inference to be made in order to establish a fact.
In both civil and criminal trials, evidence is used by both parties to build and support that party’s case, or theory as to what happened and who is responsible. Evidence includes testimony from witnesses, exhibits, and other items. All types of evidence are either “direct” or “circumstantial.”
Direct evidence proves or disproves a fact directly. Perhaps the most commonly-known type of direct evidence is eyewitness testimony, where a witness describes exactly what she saw, heard, or experienced. For instance, in a personal injury case, suppose that the injured plaintiff was crossing the street when the defendant hit her with his car. One type of direct evidence the plaintiff might use to prove that the defendant was the one driving might be the testimony of a bystander who saw the defendant clearly as his car hit the plaintiff.
Exhibits and other pieces of real or documentary evidence may also provide direct evidence. For instance, in a breach of contract case, the contract itself is direct evidence of the existence of the contract. A products liability case may bring the actual defective product into court to show the judge or jury that the product did in fact break in the way that witnesses say it did.
Circumstantial evidence, by contrast, is evidence that does not point directly to a fact. Instead, an inference must be made that links the circumstantial evidence to the fact the party using it is trying to prove.
For example, suppose that in the car accident described above, the injured plaintiff offers into evidence a photograph of the defendant’s car, taken at the accident scene. The front of the car is crumpled. The plaintiff offers the photo to prove that the defendant hit her with the car.
Unlike the plaintiff’s direct testimony that “the defendant hit me with his car,” the photograph is circumstantial evidence. It demonstrates that the defendant’s car was at the accident scene at some point, and that it had a damaged front end while it was there. In order to “connect the dots” between the damaged car and the accident that hurt the plaintiff, however, the jury or judge must infer that the damage occurred when the car hit the plaintiff. This isn’t necessarily the case. For instance, if the defendant testifies that the damage to the car was caused when he hit a deer the week before, the inference link between the circumstantial evidence of the photograph and the fact “the defendant hit the plaintiff with his car” may be broken.
Despite requiring an extra “step” in thinking, circumstantial evidence can, in some cases, be even more powerful than direct evidence. For instance, many criminal cases use evidence that the defendant’s fingerprints were found at the crime scene or on a stolen object, getaway car, or murder weapon in order to prove that the defendant was the one who committed the crime.
Fingerprints, however, are circumstantial evidence. In order to get from “his fingerprints were on the getaway car” to “he drove the getaway car in the robbery,” the jury must infer that the fingerprints got on the car as the defendant was driving it away from the robbery scene. This may not be true – the defendant’s fingerprints may have gotten on the car in a totally innocent way – but the fact that the fingerprints are there will likely weigh heavily in the minds of the jury.
Part of a jury’s job in evaluating circumstantial evidence is deciding whether the inferences the parties are asking the jurors to make are reasonable. For instance, suppose that in the car accident case, the plaintiff submits the photo of the defendant’s damaged car and asks the jury to infer that the damage resulted from the car hitting her. The defendant, however, asks the jury to infer that the damage was from a deer he hit the week before, and that he didn’t really hit the plaintiff at all. Using the other evidence offered in the case, the jury is responsible for deciding whether it believes the plaintiff’s or defendant’s version of events is more likely.