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Difference Between Direct and Circumstantial Evidence?

Posted by Ronald D. Hedding, ESQ. | Oct 26, 2022

This always comes up, and the judge explains it, or even the attorney's in a jury trial for a criminal charge. Simply put, without evidence, there is no criminal case and no conviction.

There are many types of evidence seeking to prove different things in cases. One commonly used form of evidence in criminal and other issues is circumstantial evidence, which is the most common in criminal cases.

Difference Between Direct and Circumstantial Evidence?

It's proof of a fact or even a set of facts from which somebody could infer the facts in question. For example, perhaps a suspect in a crime was seen by a witness fleeing the scene on foot after a Penal Code 211 robbery.

The “running away” from a crime scene is circumstantial evidence that they are the person who probably committed the robbery.

On the other hand, is direct evidence, which “directly” proves any facts in question that are related to a crime. Suppose in the same example above that the witness personally observed the robbery and provides testimony at trial.

This is considered direct evidence, basically evidence that goes right to it.  For example, there's a video of the crime.  That's direct evidence of the crime.

You can see it occurring. Circumstantial evidence has to do with the evidence that you have to use deductive logic to determine that a particular person is guilty of a crime.

There's no eyewitness to it, but if you look at all of the evidence, you lead to the conclusion that the person is guilty or innocent.

Both direct and circumstantial evidence is legitimate proof that someone committed a crime. They are common in all state and federal criminal courts. Our California criminal defense attorneys will examine this topic in more detail below.

What is an Example?

The best way to describe the difference between circumstantial and direct evidence is by way of an example.

Let's say that a mother is in the kitchen with her 5-year-old little boy, and she's baking a blueberry pie.  She has to go to the restroom, leaving the boy alone with the pie.

When she returns, the pie has a giant bite taken out of it.  She asks the little boy, did you bit that pie?  The little boy says, no, he didn't.

Now, there's no direct evidence that the boy bit the pie unless somebody there saw him do it; or if there was a video inside the kitchen.  That would be an excellent example of direct evidence.  You can use that evidence to prove that the boy bit the pie.

But in this case, if you look a little bit deeper, you can see that the boy has blueberry all around his mouth, crumbs down his shirt, his hands are filled with pie juice and blueberry, and he is the only one in the kitchen.

He was the only one in the house.  That is circumstantial evidence that the boy is the one who bit the piece.  So, you start to understand how circumstantial evidence can be used to prove a criminal case because we don't always have direct proof.

The prosecutors don't have direct evidence, so they've got to resort to circumstantial evidence.  If the circumstantial evidence is believable, it's good enough – just as good, in fact – as direct evidence.

What is Hearsay Evidence?

That's what I end up trying to explain to clients many times because they come in and say:

  • they can't prove the case against me,
  • they don't have the weapon,
  • they don't have an eyewitness,
  • they don't have any evidence,
  • all of their evidence is hearsay,
  • how are they going to prove it?

First, they claim that evidence is hearsay, but they don't understand it.  Just because a witness sees you do something or a witness comes in to testify to what you did, that's not hearsay.  If the witness saw or heard it, they can testify.

It's when that witness heard what somebody else said, and now they're trying to say that; that's where the hearsay rule typically blocks that statement from coming in unless there's some exception.

It is a fact that a defendant can be convicted of a crime based only on circumstantial proof. Further, circumstantial proof can be more reliable than direct evidence, with the common occurrence of false testimony and mistaken identification.

Direct Evidence in a Criminal Case

In California criminal trials, prosecutors routinely depend on circumstantial evidence to prove allegations against a defendant to obtain a conviction. However, criminal defense attorneys will make arguments to cast reasonable doubt on the alleged detailed proof.

They can even argue that if all the circumstantial facts are correct, they suggest it proves their client is innocent or, at minimum, there is at least some reasonable doubt of guilt, and they must return an acquittal.

California Criminal Jury Instructions 223 defines direct and circumstantial evidence. In these instructions, the judge will tell a jury that one type of evidence is not necessarily more reliable than the other and that neither type of evidence is entitled to any greater weight.

California Criminal Jury Instructions 224 explains that the jury should only seek to make reasonable conclusions from any circumstantial evidence presented in a case by saying that if there are two or more warranted conclusions in a case where one points to innocence and one points to guilt, then you must accept that one that points to innocence.

The jury is further instructed to reject any unreasonable conclusions.

Why You Need a Criminal Defense Lawyer?

So, the bottom line is to contact an attorney if you've got a criminal case and circumstantial evidence.  Let that attorney go over all of the evidence with you and discuss with you how the prosecutors might be able to prove this case or not, and that is important.

That is getting educated and figuring out, number one, what evidence the police and prosecutors have against you; and number two, how they will use it; and finally, whether they will be successful and how they could be successful.

Now, you're in a position to make an educated decision on how you want to handle the case. If you wish to fight it at a jury trial or whether or not you want your attorney to work out some resolution.

Perhaps we should submit a mitigation package and try to resolve the case and get you the best result. So, if you need the best, you've come to the right place.  Let me put my 30 years of experience to work for you.

Pick up the phone now and ask for a meeting with Ron Hedding.  I stand at the ready to help you. The Hedding Law Firm offers a free case evaluation by phone or use the contact form.

About the Author

Ronald D. Hedding, ESQ.

Ronald D. Hedding, Esq., is the founding member of the Hedding Law Firm. Mr. Hedding has an extensive well-rounded legal background in the area of Criminal Law. He has worked for the District Attorney's Office, a Superior Court Judge, and as the guiding force behind the Hedding Law Firm. His multi-faceted experience sets Mr. Hedding apart and puts him in an elite group of the best Criminal Defense Attorneys in Southern California.