What Kinds of Defenses Can I Use in a Criminal Case?


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It is well known that in American law, in order to convict someone of a crime, the prosecution must prove the defendant's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. But that is only one side of the equation. The defendant also has an opportunity to present evidence to support a defense. So what kinds of defenses can one raise in a criminal case?

They Can't Prove I Did It!

All people accused of a crime are presumed innocent until proven guilty, either in a trial or as a result of pleading guilty. This means that not only does the prosecution have to convince a jury of the defendant's guilt, but the defendant does not even need to defend himself if he chooses not to, and if the prosecution fails to meet its burden the defendant cannot be convicted. Indeed, the prosecution must prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt, meaning that a jury must resolve all reasonable doubts in favor of the defendant. So, with such a high burden, what sorts of defenses does a defendant have or even need to raise?

I Didn't Do It!

Obviously, one of the most common defenses is that the defendant did not commit the crime in question. Most often defendants try to avoid punishment by claiming they did not commit the crime by showing that something is inconsistent in the evidence. For example, if someone says the actual perpetrator was right handed, but the defendant is left handed, he may use this as evidence that he did not do it. Or, if a bloody glove is found at the scene of a murder, but the glove is too small to fit on the defendant's hand (“if the glove doesn't fit, you must acquit!”).

I Have an Alibi!

An alibi is evidence showing that a defendant was someplace other than the crime scene at the time a crime was committed. For example, if Barry is accused of robbing Mark's liquor store at 11 p.m., but Barry has evidence showing he was at a movie with his girlfriend at that time, Barry could use that to establish an alibi defense.

Okay, I Did it, But...

Sometimes a defendant can avoid punishment even if the prosecutor shows the defendant did commit the crime or the defendant admits to it. For example, if one raises self-defense in a homicide or battery case, the defendant admits that he or she did in fact commit the crime, but argues that it was justified by the other person's threatening actions. The primary questions in self-defense cases are who initiated the confrontation, was the defendant's belief that self-defense was necessary a reasonable one, and if so, was the force used reasonable under the circumstances?

The Insanity Defense

The insanity defense is one of the most popular in humor, but is actually used fairly infrequently. It is based on the idea that punishment is only appropriate if the defendant was capable of controlling his or her own actions and understanding of what he or she was doing wrong at the time of the crime. Obviously, this defense is terribly complicated to prove, given the capacity for faking insanity. Insanity defenses are rarely used, and even when they are, they are rarely upheld. Moreover, even if one is found not guilty by reason of insanity, they are usually not set free, but are civilly committed to a mental institution, often for the rest of their lives. Other mental disorders, like extreme low IQ have also been used as a defense, trying to suggest that the defendant was not smart enough to understand the consequences of his or her actions, so while not technically insane, they should not be punished because they simply did not know any better.

It Was the Booze!

Some crimes require specific intent, meaning the defendant had to intend the resulting consequence to flow from his or her actions. But, defendants who commit crimes while under the influence of drugs or alcohol may be able to argue that they lacked the capacity to form that intent due to their chemical impairment. However, this defense does not apply to most crimes, and voluntary intoxication is often not allowed as a defense at all.

I Was the Victim of Entrapment!

Entrapment is the situation in which the government actually induces a person to commit a crime that they were not inclined to otherwise commit and then tries to punish them for it. For example, if an undercover police officer approaches someone about buying drugs, but the defendant refuses until the undercover officer threatens and intimidates the defendant into making the purchase, entrapment has occurred. However, if a judge or jury believes that a defendant was predisposed to committing the crime anyway, the defendant may still be convicted.

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Disclaimer: While every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this publication, it is not intended to provide legal advice as individual situations will differ and should be discussed with an expert and/or lawyer.

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