Evidence comes in four basic forms:1) Demonstrative evidence; 2) Documentary evidence; 3) Real evidence and 4) Testimonial evidence.
Some rules of evidence apply to all four types and some rules apply to one or two of them. All of these forms of evidence must be admissible, though, before they can be considered as probative of an issue in a trial.
Basically, if evidence is to be admitted at court, it must be relevant, material, and competent. To be considered relevant, it must have some reasonable tendency to help prove or disprove some fact. It need not make the fact certain, but at least it must tend to increase or decrease the likelihood of some fact.
Once admitted as relevant evidence, the finder of fact (judge or jury) will determine the appropriate weight to give a particular piece of evidence. A given piece of evidence is considered material if it is offered to prove a fact that is in dispute in a case. Competent evidence is that evidence that accords with certain traditional notions of reliability. Courts are gradually diminishing the competency rules of evidence by making them issues related to the weight of evidence.
Testimonial evidence is usually the more common form of evidence, where someone takes the stand and is asked questions about a case. Because this evidence involves the statements of other people regarding certain facts, which can be tainted by poor memories or bias, there are a number of admissibility rules that apply.
For example, while witnesses may testify as to what they observed or perceived during an event, in some situations they may also testify about statements they heard outside of court (and not under oath). Such statements often constitute hearsay evidence and are generally not admissible because they are not as reliable as statements made in court and under oath. However, there are many exceptions to the hearsay rule allowing for the admission of statements made outside of court.
There are also times when a witness may seek to provide testimony about a person’s character, often to make the point that the person is the “type” of person who would or would not say or do what is at issue in a case. This type of evidence also has reliability problems as it does not directly show whether the person actually did or said what is at issue. Because of this, character evidence is generally not admissible, but there are exceptions.
In addition, there are times when certain evidence is so complicated, like DNA evidence, that it requires an expert to interpret and explain. This type of expert testimony is only admissible once the expertise of the witness is established and his or her testimony is found to be based on reliable methods and acknowledged within the scientific community.
When one side of a case tries to introduce evidence that is not relevant, material or competent, the other side can ask, before or during trial, to have the evidence suppressed on admissibility grounds. One area where a motion to suppress is commonly raised is with chain of custody issues where a piece of evidence is not properly secured from its collection to trial.
So, for example, if one side can show that a blood sample was not properly labeled or a weapon was not properly locked in an evidence room, there is no way to trust the results of any subsequent blood test or a fingerprint analysis. While this evidence may be relevant and material, it would not be competent because of intervening custody problems that could have led to inaccurate test results.
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