Defending Yourself Against a Criminal Charge

Defending yourself against a criminal charge is not easy. You must understand the elements of the crime that you have been charged with and the defenses you may have against those elements. Every case is different, but here are a few of the most common defenses to a criminal charge.


Reasonable Doubt

In order to convict you of a criminal charge, the prosecutor must prove your guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. This is a high standard to overcome. During any trial, the defendant may present a defense in order to raise a reasonable doubt. Most defenses break down into one of two categories:

  1. I didn't do it.
  2. I did it, but I shouldn't be held responsible.

'I Didn't Do It'

The most basic defense to any criminal charge is to simply prove that you did not do it. This is probably the easiest defense because the burden of proof is on the prosecutor to establish each element of the crime. The defendant can just sit back and let the prosecutor do all the work. However, if the defendant has something that proves that they could not have committed the crime, now is the time to speak up.

1. Innocent Until Proven Guilty

One of the hallmarks of the American legal system is the presumption that you are innocent until proven guilty. This isn't just an ideal—it's an actual legal presumption. It means the judge and jury must assume you're innocent until they are shown otherwise. This is why a defendant can "plead the fifth," remain silent, and not offer a shred of evidence to support his or her claim of innocence and still prevail. It is the prosecutor's job to prove a defendant is guilty, not a defendant's job to prove that he or she is innocent. So, what does a prosecutor have to show?

2. Beyond a Reasonable Doubt

The prosecutor must demonstrate to the judge or jury that there is no reasonable doubt of your guilt. If any reasonable doubt can be shown, then the defendant should be found innocent. Because this standard is so high, most defendants concentrate on raising some reasonable doubt to the prosecutor's allegations.

3. 'I Have an Alibi'

One of the primary ways defendants prove that they didn't do it is to demonstrate that they couldn't have done it. An alibi defense is evidence that you were somewhere else (often with someone else) and thus couldn't have been the perpetrator. By demonstrating to a judge or jury that it is likely that you weren't present at the crime scene, you are creating reasonable doubt of your guilt.

'I Did It, but Shouldn't Be Held Responsible'

You may have actually committed the act for which you are being charged, but you have some mitigating reason or circumstances that excuse your actions. When defending yourself against a criminal charge in this situation, the burden will be on you to prove why your actions should be excused. In this case, you will have to provide evidence of your defense. Below are a few examples of the defenses for which a criminal act may be excused.

1. Claim of Self-Defense

This is a common defense when someone is charged with a violent crime, such as an assault, battery, or murder charge. The defendant flips the story and demonstrates that, rather than being the aggressor, they were actually the victim. Self-defense laws require the defendant to show that they used reasonable force to protect themselves from the reasonable belief of imminent danger or serious bodily injury.

The self-defense claim is an ancient defense that exists in most legal systems. It is predicated on the belief that people have a right to defend themselves from physical injury.  Self-defense cases can be tricky since a defendant will generally have to demonstrate that unlawful force was necessary. This requires the defendant to show that they had a reasonable fear of physical harm or immediate danger and that the amount of force used in response was reasonable.For example, responding to an assailant's threat to punch you with the use of deadly force is almost certainly an unreasonable response. A self-defense claim can also be used to justify the use of force in defense of others.

Stand your ground laws are also a claim of self-defense. In general, states with stand-your-ground laws permit the use of deadly force in response to an immediate threat of deadly force in a place where the person has a legal right to be. Stand-your-ground laws are different from the castle doctrine, which applies to the use of force in defending the home from an intruder.

2. Insanity Defense

Although it makes for fascinating TV dramas, in real life, defendants rarely plead insanity as a defense. Judges and jurors are very skeptical of these claims, and because of the abstract nature of this defense, it can be very difficult to prove.

The theory behind an insanity defense is the notion that in almost every criminal law, there is a "mental" or "intent" element. Often, the required mental state is that you must have intended to perform the criminal act. If a defendant is precluded from an understanding of what they're doing because of mental illness, then they can't possess the mental state that the criminal charge requires. From a policy standpoint, we also tend to think that it would be more appropriate to send someone who is truly insane to psychiatric care, not prison. Thus, even if a defendant is successful in an insanity defense, they will be sent to a psychiatric institution, not set free.

So how do courts define "insane"? The most popular definition is the M'Naghten test which defines insanity as "the inability to distinguish right from wrong." To win an insanity defense successfully, a defendant will rely on testimony from a psychiatrist. They will undergo extensive psychiatric testing, which can be painful and humiliating.

3. Under the Influence Defense

Related to the insanity defense, some defendants defend themselves by claiming that they were under the influence of drugs and could not have had the mental state necessary to commit the crime. In other words, they were too high to really know what they were doing. Only a few states allow this defense, and even then, it is only a partial defense. At best, it will lower the crime you are convicted of to a lesser crime.

4. Entrapment Defense

An entrapment defense is appropriate when an official induces you to commit a crime. Common examples of this are prostitution stings or drug sales. The theory is that the government shouldn't be allowed to push you into committing a crime and then convict you for it.

This defense won't be successful if the judge or jury believes you were predisposed to committing the crime, however. So even if an undercover officer offered to sell you illegal drugs, if you have a history of drug use, an entrapment defense is unlikely to be successful.

Get Legal Help Defending Yourself Against a Criminal Charge

Defending yourself against a criminal charge has many facets. No one individual can understand the full ramifications of every charge and every defense in a criminal case without an experienced criminal defense lawyer. If you're being investigated or you've been charged with a crime, it would be wise to seek out the law office of an experienced criminal defense attorney for legal advice. An attorney can help you understand your legal rights and the legal defenses available to you.

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