Common Defenses to Criminal Charges
For a criminal defendant to be convicted, the prosecution needs to prove that they are guilty beyond reasonable doubt. Naturally, the defendant has the opportunity to give their defense through their criminal defense attorney.
There are many forms of defense for criminal activity, which come in two parts: the defendant may deny having committed the crime, or admit to having committed it, but give justifying reasons, such as self-defense. This article discusses all possible defenses that can be put forth for criminal charges.
PART I: I Didn’t Do It
This is the most common form of defense, where the defendant denies having committed the alleged crime.
The presumption of innocence
Legally, all persons who are facing criminal charges are presumed innocent until they are proven guilty, either by conviction following a trial or by pleading guilty. This presumption means the burden of proof is on the prosecution, to prove the defendant’s guilt to a judge or jury; the defendant doesn’t have to convince the jury that he’s innocent.
For instance, the defendant may choose to remain silent, not presenting any witnesses for his defense, and instead argue that the prosecution has not met the threshold to get him/her convicted. In practice however, DWI attorneys and others presenting defense for criminal charges present their own witnesses to counter the prosecution’s case.
The judge or jury must be convinced by the prosecution that the defendant is guilty “beyond reasonable doubt”. This requires that the judge/jury develop moral certainty as to the guilt of the defendant. With such a high burden, it’s common for criminal defense attorneys to remind the jury that just thinking a defendant committed the alleged crime is not enough.
The Alibi defense
Finally, the alibi defense is presented by the defendant to prove that he/she was at a different location at the time of the crime. For instance, if a person is accused of having killed someone between 3pm and 5pm on 15th June, they may argue that at that exact time they were with somebody else at a completely different location, such as a work meeting. His evidence would be the testimony of those attending the meeting, and the minutes thereof, if any.
PART II: The Defendant Committed the Crime, but…
Sometimes a prosecutor can prove that indeed the defendant has committed a crime beyond reasonable doubt, but the defendant is acquitted because he/she presents reasonable and legal justification for their actions.
This is a defense for those charged with violent crimes such as battery, assault or criminal homicide. The defendant in this case admits to having used violence against the victim, but asserts that his/her actions were in response to the other party’s violence. In such cases, the following are core issues.
- The identity of the aggressor
- Whether the defendant reasonably believed him/herself to be in danger
- Whether the defendant used reasonable force in carrying out his alleged self-defense
Self-defense has its roots in the notion that people have permission to protect themselves or others, meaning that they don’t have to wait for an actual blow before protecting themselves. For the defense to hold, the facts must prove that the defendant’s premise was reasonable.
The insanity defense
This defense is based on the premise punishment for defendants found guilty and is only justifiable if proven that the defendant at the time of committing the crime was in control of their behavior, and understood that their actions were wrong. This defense prevents criminal punishment against people whose faculties are not fully functional.
The insanity defense is particularly complex, with much research having been done to explain its distinctions. Below are some interesting points.
- Rarely does a defendant enter a “not guilty by reason of insanity” plea, since this defense is extremely difficult for a criminal defense attorney to prove. Insanity is the only exception that shifts the burden of proof from the prosecution to the defendant.
- Currently, mental health practitioners and the legal system have been unable to come to a unanimous decision on the definition of insanity, hence many definitions are currently in use, e.g. in the M’Naghten rule it’s defined as the inability to differentiate right from wrong or irresistible impulse where a person knows they’re doing something wrong, but can’t stop themselves from doing it.
- Acquittal is not assured even if the defense proves its case. Likely, they may be confined in a mental institution, sometimes for longer than they would have in prison.
Under the influence
Defendants through a DUI attorney may argue that their judgment was impaired if they commit a crime under the influence, hence they should not be held accountable. Generally, voluntary intoxication is not an acceptable defense for criminal conduct. However, it may result in acquittal for crimes that require specific intent, such as first degree murder. Specific intent, however, is only partially acceptable, since the person may be convicted of the lesser offense where specific intent is not required.
This occurs where the government causes a person to commit crimes they would not have committed otherwise. Entrapment is very difficult to prove as law enforcement officers may provide an opening for a defendant to commit a crime, without it being classified as entrapment.