What’s the difference between direct and circumstantial evidence?
Direct evidence is testimony or physical evidence of a fact. Circumstantial evidence is evidence of one fact that leads to an inference or presumption. For example, Clete Purcel testifies that he saw the mobster take a shot at Dave Robicheaux. That’s direct evidence. But if Clete testifies that he watched Dave enter the mobster’s office and a few minutes later, heard a shot, went in, and found the mobster standing over Dave with a gun in his hand, that’s circumstantial evidence. The witness did not see what happened, but because of the circumstances, we infer or presume that the mobster shot Dave.
If, instead, a witness saw Dave and Clete enter the office together, heard a shot, saw Clete run out of the room and leave the building, then found Dave checking the prostrate mobster for a pulse, the witness’s testimony is direct evidence that Clete fled the scene. But it’s only circumstantial evidence that Clete shot the mobster. And you know Dave didn’t see a thing.
Circumstantial evidence may be enough to prove a defendant’s guilt. But because circumstantial evidence is not conclusive proof, the judge must decide it’s relevant before admitting it at trial, considering what facts the evidence is intended to prove, and whether it makes those facts more probable. The judge looks through the lens of experience, judgment, and knowledge of human behavior, and asks what inferences a juror is likely to make fairly, reasonably, and consistently with all the other evidence.
But all evidence rises and falls on the credibility of the witness. If you’re counting on Clete Purcel to make your case, expect problems.