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What is Documentary Evidence?

The legal system recognizes and classifies several different types of evidence, including: testimony, lies, eyewitness identification, and exculpatory, physical, digital, demonstrative, scientific, genetic, and documentary evidence. Documentary evidence refers specifically to proof that has been documented, for example, something that has been written down. Other types of documentation include still photographs and live action video as well as sound recordings and even emails, which can be printed out. Documentary evidence is important for the information it contains. In contrast, physical evidence, for example, is important simply for its existence.

What Documentary Evidence Isn’t
A single item of proof may be classified as different types of evidence, depending on the context and why that item is being presented in court. For example, a blood soaked piece of paper from a handwritten letter might be presented as either physical or documentary evidence, depending on why it is submitted. If this item is submitted to show that the writer was injured while writing the letter, causing the paper to become blood soaked, it would be considered physical evidence. However, if that same letter were to be submitted in order to prove that the person who wrote the confession contained in the letter committed that crime, it would be considered documentary evidence. If the letter were to be submitted in order to show that it may in fact be a coerced confession, with the writer only “confessing” under considerable duress (as suggested by the blood), it would be considered both physical and documentary evidence.

Examples of Documentary Evidence
Documentary evidence may include:
• Photographs
• Sound recordings
• Video
• Written correspondence
• Journal entries
• Receipts
• Web pages
• Printed emails

Types of Documentary Evidence
In addition to the various forms documentary evidence can take, this type of evidence may also be considered direct or circumstantial. The distinction is based on how the evidence is presented. Direct evidence, as the name implies, directly proves a point. Circumstantial evidence depends on an interpretation of the evidence based on first making a particular assumption or inference. For example, a handwritten eyewitness statement regarding a crime would be direct documentary evidence. A photograph of the damage allegedly caused in a car accident submitted as part of an insurance claim would be circumstantial documentary evidence. The only thing the photograph directly proves is that damage occurred to the car; it doesn’t directly prove how that damage was done. The necessary assumption is that the driver is being honest in declaring the car accident occurred and caused the damage illustrated by the photograph.

How is Documentary Evidence Used in a Trial?
Documentary evidence is generally entered as an exhibit at trial. In order to do so, lawyers must first establish the foundation for submitting documentary evidence by describing the item and explaining where it was obtained. In keeping with the “best evidence rule”, eyewitnesses are often used to lay the foundation for submitting documentary evidence, and a variety of techniques, including analysis by handwriting experts, may be used to establish the authenticity of a given document.

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