Nowadays, many people are exposed to examples of criminal defense through true crime documentaries or television shows. When someone is charged with a crime, they have several defenses at their disposal.
We’ll go through what defense in criminal law is and cover some of the most common types of defense encountered in this domain. Of course, a defense lawyer aims to choose the most appropriate strategy based on the facts and circumstances of each specific criminal offense. There are many types of defenses available, but we've selected some of the most noteworthy ones here.
What is a Criminal Defense?
A defense in criminal law is a strategic argument that aims to refute the prosecution’s evidence by questioning its sufficiency and legitimacy. The prosecution, which represents “the state,” is the side attempting to prove the charges for the crime made against the accused party.
The prosecution must establish that the crime was committed beyond a reasonable doubt by proving each element of the alleged crime. Those elements are also referred to as the “burden of proof.” The defense attorney has several ways to provide defense in court and find flaws in the prosecutor’s arguments.
The lawyer’s role is to help the defendant determine their options and rights. Depending on the type of crime someone has been charged with, the defendant(s) can use a single defense or combine multiple ones.
Types of Criminal Defense
Many defense types can be used to oppose criminal charges. The defendant may claim that they committed the crime for a legitimate reason or that another person committed it. They can also claim the evidence was obtained in violation of their constitutional rights, that the prosecution’s case is flawed, that the crime was committed due to mental incapacity, or that they lacked the intent to execute it.
Depending on their financial situation, the defendant can either hire a private attorney or get assigned a public defender.
Some defenses, known as negating defenses, seek to invalidate elements of the plaintiff's case or demonstrate that they failed to make a compelling case in the first place.
On the other hand, affirmative defenses are founded on a set of facts not presented by the plaintiff. Even if the prosecution's allegations are correct, an affirmative defense can help the defendant win the case. Three types of affirmative defenses are frequently used in criminal law: justification defense, alibi, and excuse defenses.
As its name suggests, this defense type is commonly used when the defendant did not commit the alleged crime. Innocence defense may be the most straightforward defense one can have in court, but that doesn’t make it the simplest one necessarily.
Bear in mind that the prosecution must establish each element of the crime alleged against the defender beyond a reasonable doubt.
Insanity Defense in Criminal Cases
This affirmative defense can frequently be seen on many television shows. The insanity defense requires the defendant to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that they have a mental disorder that made them incapable of distinguishing right from wrong while committing the crime or that it prevented them from resisting violent impulses and controlling their actions.
The accused person’s defense can allow them to avoid incarceration, but it may require that they be treated or hospitalized in a psychiatric institution, depending on where they are prosecuted. Establishing someone’s insanity might be difficult in some cases.
Currently, varying from state to state, there are four types of tests being used to determine if someone is legally insane. If the defendant admits to several counts against them, but the jury doesn’t deem them insane, the case will still be lost, and standard penal procedures will follow.
Intoxication defenses also rely on the idea that the defendant couldn't meet all of the elements of the offense because they didn't understand what they were doing. That’s why it could be considered a lack of intent defense.
Involuntary intoxication throws out the intent part of most offenses since it implies that the defendant was in a state where they weren’t aware of what they were doing because they had been drugged, for instance. If the intoxication prevented them from knowing right from wrong, then an intent for the crime couldn’t be formed. This defense can then be used as a common defense against intent charges.
On the other hand, voluntary intoxication could not stand as a valid defense in most cases, and taking drugs and alcohol willingly for recreational or other purposes will make it very hard for this type of defense to stand up in court.
It could still be applied to specific cases where the defense can prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the intoxication prevented the defendant from forming the necessary intent for committing the crime, though.
Mistake of Fact & Mistake of Law Defense
In some cases, the defendant may have been oblivious of an element of the crime brought against them by the prosecution and claim that it was never their intention to do something illegal. This could be presented as a mistake of fact or law, depending on the circumstances.
A mistake of fact defense can be used when the defendant honestly and reasonably misunderstood a fact that could negate a crime element. This criminal law defense can be used in response to numerous criminal offenses. For example, if a person is charged with theft but mistakenly thought that they could legally take something, then any intent to steal is negated by this misunderstanding.
On the other hand, mistakes of law can be used in some specific instances, but rarely. A mistake of law implies that the defendant was unaware or misinterpreted the law in effect at the time. Of course, it would be unreasonable for someone accused of murder to claim that they were unaware that murdering someone was a crime.
Self-Defense and Defense of Others
When a defendant commits a crime by trying to defend themselves or someone else and claims that they had a valid reason for doing so, these two legal defenses can be used: self-defense and defense of others.
It’s acknowledged in courts that every individual has the right to defend themselves in dangerous situations by using reasonable force. However, the legal system usually condemns the use of force or violence against others. That said, the right to use reasonable force in defense of other individuals who are threatened is recognized as the defense of others.
Usually, in order for self-defense and defense of others to be acceptable criminal law defenses in court, the following elements need to be met:
- The threat must be severe enough to put the defendant, or the person they were defending, in real danger,
- The use of violence is no longer acceptable once the threat has passed,
- The fear that compelled the defendant to use force in self-defense and defense of others must be reasonable,
- The defendant can’t use lethal force in response to a non-lethal threat, which means the amount of force used must be proportionate to the threat.
The alibi defense is one of the better examples of affirmative defenses in criminal law. It implies the defendant should provide information and proof surrounding their whereabouts and actions during the timeframe when the crime occurred.
Providing an alibi means proving that the defendant could not have been the perpetrator of the crime. The defense must establish that the accused had no way of being at the crime scene at the time of the crime.
Supporting evidence should be provided by the defendant to prove that they were not present at the scene of the crime. Witness testimonies, phone records, security footage, and various receipts are all examples of valid evidence that could support their claim.
Duress or Coercion Defense
A duress defense might be used to excuse a defendant who committed a crime in response to a threat. Having said that, duress is not typically a justifiable reason for breaking the law.
In this case, one of the criminal defense examples would be to show that anyone in the defendant's circumstances would’ve committed the offense. In some ways, it's similar to self-defense in that it stems from a threat of physical injury or possible death. This implies that the accused had a legitimate concern and fear that the threats that were made against them would become a reality.
Additionally, because duress is an affirmative defense, the defendant must demonstrate that they had no option but to do what they did by presenting evidence for each element, including:
- A genuine fear of serious physical harm or death,
- No feasible means of escaping the dangerous situation,
- Act influenced by threats from others,
- Lack of fault on the defender’s part
Duress is frequently an inadequate defense for murder or other particularly severe crimes.
When a person commits a criminal offense to prevent even worse damage from occurring in a critical situation, the defense of necessity might be applied. In such cases, the legal system usually decides that the defendant’s illegal act was justified or that no criminal liability exists. It’s commonly referred to as “the lesser of two evils” defense and sometimes gets confused with the duress defense.
The defense of necessity will only be acceptable if all of these conditions are fulfilled:
- The defendant must have had no other option but to carry out the criminal act,
- The defendant must have genuinely believed that an actual threat necessitating urgent action existed,
- The defendant did not initiate or further contribute to the danger,
- The criminal act's impact and harm must not be worse than the harm that’s been prevented.
It's also worth noting that in some states, necessity can never be used as a valid defense for killing another person, regardless of the situation the defendant has been put in.
Abandonment or Withdrawal Defense
Abandonment and withdrawal is a defense that can be used if a defendant never finished or was not involved in a criminal offense because they withdrew from it before it occurred. Abandonment is also an affirmative defense, which means the defendant must prove that they completed all of the criteria for a valid withdrawal from the criminal act.
The defense must establish that the defendant withdrew from different types of crimes with the following elements:
- The defendant stopped partaking in the wrongdoing before its completion,
- The defendant's behavior before withdrawing from the crime had no bearing on its successful execution,
- The defendant promptly informed the police in order to prevent the crime from happening.
The defendant must choose to abandon the criminal act voluntarily, which is called a voluntary abandonment or withdrawal defense. If they didn’t go through with the crime because they were afraid of getting caught or if something went wrong, it would be considered involuntary abandonment, which could not stand as a valid defense. Consequently, the accused must show that they made a conscious decision not to go through with the crime.
After taking a good look at some of the most common types of defense, it's clear that determining and classifying each element of the crime, along with someone's intentions and circumstances at the time, is a challenging task.
Because the legal system (like every other system) isn’t always perfect, it's not uncommon for certain experts to agree on one classification system or verdict while disagreeing on another. It is the responsibility of the defense attorneys and prosecutors to present cases in the best possible way, but the rest is up to the judge and jury.