If a person is charged with a crime they have two choices. They can plead guilty and forgo a trial or they can plead not guilty and go to trial. When a person pleads not guilty, that is not a comment on whether or not they carried out the crime they are being accused of. It could mean that although they committed the crime, they feel that they had a good reason for doing so and therefore they should be found not guilty. People who admit to committing a crime but feel that they should be exonerated for a variety of reasons present what is known as an affirmative criminal defense. People use many different types of reasons for their affirmative criminal defense but there a few popular ones.
Television shows and movies love to use the insanity defense in their portrayal of criminal cases. But the truth is, this affirmative criminal defense is not used often. Insanity defenses only work if a jury can be convinced that the defendant was totally incapable of understanding what they were doing and the consequences of their actions. Even for people with real mental defects it is difficult to meet that criteria. And because it is so difficult to convince a jury that a defendant is too insane to be found guilty, this defense is only used as a last ditch effort for defendants who refuse to plead guilty even when the evidence is stacked against them.
The coercion and/or duress affirmative criminal defense is used more often. This defense states that a defendant only committed a crime because another individual threatened them with harm if they did not commit crime. A defendant can claim coercion even if the threat was against them personally; having a member of their family be threatened would also fall under the coercion and duress defense.
A defendant cannot use this defense if they were involved in a crime that brought about the coercion. For instance, if a defendant and another individual car jack someone and the defendant is forced at gun point to shoot the car jack victim, they cannot claim coercion in the shooting. This defense is almost always used in cases where there are co-defendants. It is rare that a defendant claims a person who was not involved in the crime at all coerced them.
The most widely used affirmative criminal defense is self-defense. Self-defense also happens to be the affirmative criminal defense that acquits defendants the most. People who are accused of murder and serious assault use this defense. One reason why this defense is so successful is because, sadly, the victim is deceased and cannot tell their side of the story.
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