One of the functions of the jury is to determine what happened. The jury bases this determination upon the evidence adduced during the trial. Evidence comes in two forms: either direct or circumstantial. Direct evidence means evidence that directly proves a fact. Circumstantial evidence means evidence that proves a fact from which inference of a different fact may be drawn.
Juries are instructed that facts need not be proved by direct evidence. Facts may be proved by circumstantial evidence or by a combination of direct and circumstantial evidence. Both direct and circumstantial evidence are acceptable as a means of proof. However, both circumstantial and direct evidence should be scrutinized and evaluated carefully.
A conviction may be based on circumstantial evidence alone, or in combination with direct evidence, provided that it convinces each juror of a defendant's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Conversely, circumstantial evidence can give rise to reasonable doubt in jurors' minds as to the defendant's guilt. In such case, the jury is instructed that it must find the defendant not guilty.
Here are examples of the difference between direct and circumstantial evidence: Suppose the issue is whether it snowed during the night. Direct evidence would be testimony indicating that the witness saw snow falling during the night. Circumstantial Evidence would be testimony that there was no snow on the ground before the witness went to sleep, but that when she arose in the morning, although it was not snowing, the ground had snow on it. The first example is direct evidence that snow fell during the night. The second example is circumstantial evidence. It provides facts from which a juror may draw an inference that it snowed during the night.
The examples we just gave are straightforward. The Rules of Evidence themselves, however, are complicated. They are often counterintuitive. Is the evidence that a party seeks to offer relevant? Has it been authenticated? Is it hearsay? Has a proper foundation been laid? What about chain of custody? What about the “Best Evidence Rule?” Is its evidential value outweighed by its potential for undue prejudice? Was it obtained in a constitutional manner? And is it in his client's best interest to not object even when the question asked is improper? It is the Rules of Evidence that the judge relies upon when responding either “sustained” or “overruled” when the lawyer does object at trial.
Persons facing trial need the assistance of a lawyer who has great familiarity with the Rules of Evidence. This assistance is, in fact, needed long before trial, for several reasons. One reason is so the lawyer can provide advice concerning what evidence the prosecutor will be allowed to present. A second reason is so the lawyer can advise the client of possible material admissible under the Rules of Evidence that might help the defense. A third reason is to provide the lawyer with enough time to research the law concerning evidence issues that are out of the ordinary. The lawyer must anticipate what evidence the prosecutor is likely to advance. This research, in turn, enables the lawyer to better anticipate what evidence the judge will allow, and what evidence the judge will preclude, so that the lawyer can fashion trial strategy accordingly.
Federal Rules of Evidence govern what evidence is admissible in federal courts. State courts have their own Rules of Evidence. New Jersey Rules of Evidence are patterned after the Federal Rules of Evidence, but with numerous differences. With combined trial experience that exceeds sixty-five years, Mr. Marain and Mr. Godman have learned to use the Rules of Evidence to clients' best advantage. You can put their experience to work for you.