Direct Versus Circumstantial Evidence

Black’s Ninth Edition (2009) contrasts these classes of evidence. Direct evidence is “based on personal knowledge or observation … that, if true, proves a fact without inference or presumption.” Circumstantial evidence is “based on inference and not on personal knowledge or observation.” Eyewitness testimony describing commission of a crime is direct evidence. The alleged perpetrator’s flight from a crime scene is circumstantial evidence.

The Tennessee Supreme Court recently cleared up earlier confusion about which type evidence is weightier. State v. Dorantes, 331 S.W.3d 370 (2011), holds that direct and circumstantial evidence weigh the same.

State v. Michael Montell Williams (Tenn. Crim. App., Oct. 28, 2011), perm. app. denied March 6, 2012, contains examples of both varieties of evidence. Williams was a transplanted Yankee living at Gruetli-Laager in Grundy County. He had dated a local lady named Sherry Lynn Wise Smith, but she reunited with her ex-husband. Williams lured her away to Chattanooga, where they shared a room at the Hampton Inn on Shallowford Road from Tuesday, June 13, through Saturday, June 17, 2006. At some hour Sherry Smith died in that room, apparently by smothering.

Direct evidence proving Williams’s guilt included his admissions on a tape recording he made after killing the victim. He also confessed to police: “I will tell you that we were supposed to die together. It’s not just like a murder. It’s like a murder/suicide.”

Circumstantial evidence included the couple’s sole access to the death chamber, Room 128 at the Inn. Moreover, the victim was last seen alive by outsiders just after midnight on Thursday, June 15.

What injuries did Williams suffer in his alleged suicide attempt? Only a cut on his right arm and abrasions on his neck and arms and wrists.

Williams was convicted of first degree premeditated murder and abuse of a corpse. (The perv had postmortem sex with the deceased.) His sentences were life in prison plus two years, to run concurrently.


Don Paine DONALD F. PAINE is a past president of the Tennessee Bar Association and is of counsel to the Knoxville firm of Paine, Tarwater, and Bickers LLP. He lectures for the Tennessee Law Institute, BAR/BRI Bar Review, and the Tennessee Judicial Conference.