A person accused and charged of committing a crime becomes a criminal defendant. He is presumed innocent until the government proves that he is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. However, a defense which excuses or justifies his criminal behavior may prevent a criminal conviction or reduce a criminal charge.
The law generally allows a self-defense justification where the defendant was not the aggressor, where his reaction was a reasonable response to a threat, and where he actually and reasonably believed that he was in danger of imminent serious bodily injury or death. That may be challenging to prove, especially where witness testimony conflicts. If fully proven, however, self-defense will completely absolve the defendant of the crime that he committed.
Most states recognize duress and necessity defenses to crimes committed under the threat of death or serious bodily injury. For example, if someone forces someone to steal a car by threatening them with a gun to the head, duress could be plead to a charge of auto theft. Necessity, also known as the lesser harm defense, might be a good defense where the defendant broke into a mountain cabin to prevent from freezing to death in a blizzard. These defenses are highly uncommon. However, a criminal defendant has a complete defense where duress or necessity is proven.
Mental disease or defect is usually not a defense, but if the defendant suffered from a severe mental illness or defect at the time of commission of the offense the insanity defense may prevent him from serving time in prison. The theory behind the insanity defense is that a person should not be punished because they are unable to form the willful intent necessary to commit an offense.
Insanity is a difficult defense to prove, however. It requires clear and competent expert testimony. Also, it is important to keep in mind that those who successfully plead insanity are not set free. They are sent to medical facilities to be treated and are not released until they regain sanity. Treatment may take longer than the prison sentence they would have received if convicted.
A defendant may plead "diminished capacity" as a defense in some states. The principle of diminished capacity is that there are some mental diseases and defects that do not affect people sufficiently enough to make them insane, but the law recognizes them nonetheless. The net effect of a successful diminished capacity defense is typically a lesser punishment or a charge reduction (murder to manslaughter, e.g.).
Intoxication generally does not provide a defense to criminal charges, especially where the defendant became intoxicated voluntarily. The law holds people responsible for their choice to become intoxicated, even if they would not have committed the crime if they had been sober. In some cases, where the defense can show that the influence of drugs or alcohol made the defendant unable to be guilty of intentionally committing the crime due to their diminished capacity, intoxication may justify a reduced charge (see also Insanity). On the other hand, intoxication may provide a total defense for a defendant who became involuntarily intoxicated -- for example where she committed a crime as a result of being unknowingly drugged or forced to consume large amounts of alcohol.
If believed by the jury, an alibi provides a strong criminal defense and and helps the assertion of actual innocence. Ideally, an alibi will account for the defendant's whereabouts in a way which makes it impossible for him to be guilty of the crime. At the least, it should create reasonable doubt about his guilt. For example, if the state charges a defendant with a burglary in Connecticut and the defendant can prove that he was in California at the time of the crime, this will probably prevent his conviction. Using credit card receipts from California may not create a strong alibi against the crime in Connecticut because the jury could conceive of ways in which the defendant could have committed the crime in Connecticut and still have receipts from California.
The law prohibits the law enforcement officers from inducing or persuading a person to commit a crime that he had no previous intention to commit. If the defendant can prove that his arrest resulted from police entrapment, he cannot be convicted of that crime, even if he did truly commit it. The problem with this defense, however, is that it usually depends on the testimony of the defendant against the testimony of the police. Juries are likely to prefer the testimony of their community's peace keepers over the testimony of a criminal defendant, especially where the defendant has a history of crime.
Mistake of Law: Not knowing about or misunderstanding a law, such as not knowing the death with dignity law in a particular state, does not excuse or justify criminal behavior. Every person is responsible for knowing and abiding by state and federal laws and a defendant can be convicted for actions which he did not even know were against the law.
Mistake of Fact: A mistake involving facts however, may be an effective defense. For example, if a defendant accidentally takes someone else's bag home from the airport because she thought it was her bag, she may avoid charges of theft if she can show that she took the wrong bag by mistake.
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