Evidence is a crucial part of practicing law and the foundation for every legal case. Simply put, without evidence, you have no case to try. However, every case is different and with that comes differing types of evidence.
There are four main types of evidence: real evidence, demonstrative evidence, documentary evidence, and testimonial evidence. Within those realms, there are more specific variations but these four types of evidence are essential for practicing law.
- Using Evidence in Court
- Direct Evidence
- Circumstantial Evidence
- Admissibility of Evidence
- Real Evidence
- Demonstrative Evidence
- Documentary Evidence
- Testimonial Evidence
- Additional Types of Evidence
- Final Thoughts – Types of Evidence in Law
Using Evidence in Court
Every case requires evidence to prove facts and dispute assertions made by the opposing counsel. The aforementioned four types of evidence (real evidence, demonstrative evidence, documentary evidence, and testimonial evidence) generally fall under two larger categories: direct or circumstantial.
Direct evidence is any evidence that “speaks for itself” such as a confession, a weapon, or an eyewitness account (American Bar Association). Direct Evidence “is evidence that directly links a defendant to the crime for which they’re on trial without any need for inference” (Rasmussen University).
Circumstantial evidence is any evidence that implies or infers information such as the crime scene appearance, physical evidence that suggests criminal activity, or testimony that suggests links with other crimes (The American Bar Association).
Generally speaking, circumstantial evidence implies that someone committed a crime and is not as strong a foundation as direct evidence. However, with enough circumstantial evidence a case can be made. In order to be impactful and make a case, there must be a large quantity of circumstantial evidence or the circumstantial evidence must stand in support of direct evidence.
Admissibility of Evidence
Both direct and circumstantial evidence play a large role in criminal cases. However, not all evidence carries the same amount of influence in a courtroom. This depends greatly on the type of evidence, whether or not it is circumstantial or direct, and its relevance to the case.
All of the following types of evidence and more are subject to admissibility. All evidence must be deemed admissible or inadmissible by a judge prior to being presented in front of a jury or the judge in court.
Evidence can be deemed inadmissible for a number of reasons including the following: “it was improperly obtained, it is prejudicial, it is not relevant to the case or it is hearsay” (Rasmussen University).
Evidence can also be considered inadmissible based on its probative value. If evidence is determined to be more prejudicial than probative, it is often considered inadmissible.
Probative value is determined by the evidence’s ability to prove or disprove relevant information in the trial. Evidence is considered more prejudicial than probative if it is at “significant risk of misuse of the information by the jury, or the evidence is too misleading, confusing or distracting” (William Jaksa).
One of the most common and effective uses of evidence is real evidence. Real evidence classifies material evidence that is relevant to the case. Real evidence is also known as physical evidence.
Real or physical evidence is all evidence that is a physical, material object related to the case. To be considered real or physical evidence, the evidence must be authentic, material and relevant.
These requirements are validated and tracked through a system called the Chain of Custody. Chain of Custody documents who has had possession of the evidence so as to discourage evidence tampering of any kind.
Examples of Real Evidence
Examples of real evidence must be physical items. However, this includes a variety of types of physical evidence. Some examples of real evidence include the following, among others:
- The perpetrator or the victim’s clothing
- A weapon used in progress of a murder or assault
- Blood samples or other DNA evidence
In contrast, Demonstrative evidence is additional evidence used to explain or demonstrate the relevance of other evidence such as testimonial evidence.
Demonstrative evidence is highly regulated and is only admissible in court when it is proved to be a relevant and accurate illustration of a witness’s testimony. Additionally, demonstrative evidence can be used to graph or chart physical or financial injury (FindLaw.com).
Essentially demonstrative evidence is auxiliary evidence that helps explain and investigate other complementary evidence, usually testimonial evidence or real evidence.
Examples of Demonstrative Evidence
The most common forms of demonstrative evidence are usually charts, maps, tables and diagrams that outline the impact of other evidence presented during the trial.
Documentary evidence is the presentation of documents at trial. Similar in concept to real or physical evidence, documentary evidence is direct evidence that moves to prove or disprove facts presented at trial.
However, documentary evidence is confined to documents that present relevant information. Again, these documents must be verified as authentic and relevant.
Examples of Documentary Evidence
A few examples of documentary evidence include the following:
- Birth and Death Certificates
Testimonial evidence is when an individual is called to the stand to tell the court what they saw or heard in relation to the trial. Testimonial evidence is also referred to as witness statements.
Additional Types of Evidence
While Real Evidence, Demonstrative Evidence, Documentary Evidence, and Testimonial Evidence are the most commonly implemented forms of evidence, there are a variety of other types of evidence beyond that.
Some of these further types of evidence fall under the larger categories of Real/Physical, Demonstrative, Documentary, and Testimonial and will be noted as such.
Forensic Evidence is also known as Scientific Evidence. This evidence is “based off [of] knowledge that has been developed by using the scientific method” (Rasmussen University). Examples of forensic evidence include DNA matching, fingerprint identification, hair and skin cell evidence and more.
Forensic or Scientific Evidence is categorized under Real or Physical Evidence.
Expert Witness Evidence
Expert Witness is a type of Testimonial Evidence. Courts do not allow individuals to testify based on opinion so it is up to lawyers to bring in expert witnesses to provide factual and objective evidence
Expert witness evidence requires the witness to be an expert in the particular field to be addressed.
Character evidence is evidence which is brought in to demonstrate the reputation and morals of an individual within the trial. For example, if a witness is called to the stand and testifies to a defendant’s morals, that is a character witness or character evidence.
Exculpatory Evidence is any type of evidence that calls into question the validity of a statement or other evidence. Generally speaking, exculpatory evidence is used to introduce reasonable doubt.
This type of evidence is usually presented to show that a defendant is not guilty by showing an alternative series of events.
Hearsay evidence is admissible depending on the jurisdiction it is presented in, however, more often than not, hearsay evidence is deemed inadmissible in court.
Evidence is deemed hearsay due to the “inability of the other party to cross-examine the person who made the statement in question” (Rasmussen University).
In contrast, Corroborating Evidence is evidence that “strengthen[s], add[s] to, authenticate[s] or confirm[s] already existing evidence” (Rasmussen University).
The most common example is when physical evidence is used to reinforce eyewitness testimonial evidence. The physical evidence provides additional proof that confirms or strengthens the statement made by the eyewitness.
Related: Do Police Ever Falsify Evidence?
Final Thoughts – Types of Evidence in Law
There is an extensive library of different types of evidence that can be presented at trial. The types of evidence listed above are some of the most common forms of evidence, however, there are many more varieties.
All evidence tends to fall into the four main types of evidence first mentioned: Real Evidence, Demonstrative Evidence, Documentary Evidence and Testimonial Evidence.
Beyond that, all evidence must be determined to be Direct or Circumstantial. Generally, circumstantial evidence is relevant in a supporting role while direct evidence is the star of the show.
Of course, before any evidence is presented in court it must be deemed admissible. To be deemed admissible, all evidence must be relevant, authentic, and verifiable.
At the core of every case and every trial is the evidence. The evidence presented at trial is the foundation of every case presented at court. This makes knowing the different types of evidence in law absolutely crucial to any legal career.