Evidence: Some Basic Terms

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Critical to the understanding of how evidence is presented at trial is understanding how evidence is defined. Knowledge of the rules governing evidence is also essential. This paper introduces several basic but key terms, with particular emphasis on the Federal Rules of Evidence. These definitions should in nowise be construed as complete or authoritative as it is intended to introduce the basic concept as it relates to criminal justice practices.

Corpus Delicti and Prima Facie
Corpus Delicti, or “the body of the crime” are those elements necessary to assure the guilt – or innocence – of the accused; that the crime actually took place. Specifically, the courts have generally looked at three principles: first, was there, in fact, a damage or injury; second, was there criminal activity – a violation of law – an act that caused the damage or injury – actus reus; and third, did the accused commit the crime – mens rea. The principle of corpus delicti was established in order to protect the innocent from being convicted of a crime that, in fact, had never occurred or that he/she had not committed. The corpus delicti consists of the real and material evidence necessary to establish the facts of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt. The third principle in particular has the effect of making the prosecution prove its entire case before corpus delicti is considered to have been established. Presumptive (circumstantial) evidence can be used to establish corpus delicti beyond a reasonable doubt. Prima facie evidence is not presumptive but, indeed, is a matter self-evident upon presentation of the facts. That is, it is evidence sufficient to support the presumption of fact unless rebutted. Both sides in court must present prima facie evidence to support their argument. Particularly, should the prosecution fail in this regard for each element of the crime, the case can be dismissed without any rebuttal from the defense. Hence, all corpus delecti evidence needs to be prima facie, but not all prima facie evidence goes to corpus delecti. For example, if the fact, prima facie, a corpse was negroid, it does not establish the murder was a hate crime.

Hearsay
Generally, hearsay evidence is not admissible because the evidence, namely the source of the statement, cannot be examined and cross-examined. Typically the statement is offered out of court and even if the witness on the stand made the statement, it is still treated as hearsay. Our adversarial system requires that a witness’ statement be direct so that it can be examined and subject to cross-examination and/or redirect, that the witness be subjected to impeachment. However, there are a number of exceptions under rules 803, 804 and 807.

Lay Witness
Rule 701 states: “If the witness is not testifying as an expert, the witness' testimony in the form of opinions or inferences is limited to those opinions or inferences which are (a) rationally based on the perception of the witness, and (b) helpful to a clear understanding of the witness' testimony or the determination of a fact in issue, and (c) not based on scientific, technical, or other specialized knowledge within the scope of Rule 702.” Lay witnesses express opinions developed from either experience or specialized knowledge, as long as the other standards of Rule 701 are met. A lay witness with first-hand knowledge can offer an opinion analogous to expert testimony in most cases, if the judge determines that the witness possesses sufficient and relevant specialized knowledge or experience to offer the opinion. An important aspect of Rule 701 was that it often allowed a testifying party to give his or her views nearly without limit. This is helpful in smaller cases, where the expense of an expert might not be justified. However, any part of a witness' testimony that is based on scientific, technical, or other specialized knowledge must comply with the standards of Rule 702 and any expert disclosure...
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