Criminal Defenses in Minnesota Courts

A “crime” is an intentional act the law defines as illegal, for which the law provides a criminal remedy.  A criminal remedy is prison, jail or fine.  “Elements” or parts define every crime.  That is basic criminal law.   As a result, we have two types of criminal defenses.


To prove guilt, the prosecutor must produce evidence to prove each and every “element” of the crime.  This means that criminal defenses include defeating the prosecutor’s attempts to prove an element.

George Stinney was falsely convicted and executed.  We use criminal defenses to prevent this.
George Stinney was falsely convicted and executed. We use criminal defenses to prevent this.

Criminal statutes are many.  Of the thousands of crimes defined, some have many elements, while some have few.  We analyze each statute to find the “elements.” The prosecutor must prove each one before a person can be “guilty.”

But every crime must include at least three, generic “elements:”

  1. Actus reus – a Latin phrase meaning “performing the act.”  Did the accused do the act forbidden by the statute?  (Criminal act.)
  2. Mens rea – a Latin phrase meaning “intent to do the act.”  Did the accused intend to do the act?  (Criminal intent.)
  3. Identity.  If someone commits a crime (if someone intentionally did a forbidden act), can we determine who did so?  (Identity.)

The most common criminal defenses show the prosecutors inability to prove one or more element.

Two Main Types of Criminal Defenses

There are two main types of criminal defenses.  The burden of coming up with evidence in court is on the government.  As a result, the main type of defense is the “burden of proof” defense.   This is the failure to prove each “element” of the criminal claim by the government.

The other type is an “affirmative defense.”  The defendant shoulders the initial burden of producing evidence of the defense. Once done, the burden of overcoming the affirmative defense then shifts to the prosecutor.

Burden of Proof Defense:

Remember, the definition of every crime is in several parts or elements.  And  a prosecutor must prove each part before the defendant can be guilty.  If proof of one element is lacking , then the accused is “not guilty.”  Available criminal defenses always include this type.

Let’s look at a hypothetical example.

You are out hunting with your son.  While climbing over a fence in the countryside, you drop your shotgun which discharges – killing your son.  A prosecutor charges you with Murder.  Are you guilty?  The evidence at trial is strong that you were there; dropped your gun; which caused Johnny’s death.  So, the “actus reus” and identity elements seem satisfied.

But what about intent?  If you dropped the shotgun by accident while climbing over the fence, then you did not intend to fire it.  Since there is not enough evidence of an intentional act, the jury finds you not-guilty of the crime charged.  Proof of the “intent element” was lacking.  The verdict was just.

Affirmative Defenses:

Criminal defenses include affirmative defenses.  An affirmative defense is a defense that the accused (through defense counsel) must provide some evidence for the defense.  Otherwise, the judge may not allow evidence or argument about the defense to reach the jury.  If the jury hears about an affirmative defense, that means a judge approves.

Once the defense makes a threshold showing for the affirmative defense, the prosecutor has the burden of proof.  The prosecutor must then try to prove that the affirmative defense does not apply, beyond any reasonable doubt.

If the jury believes the affirmative defense true, or has doubt about it, then the accused is “not guilty.”

“Self-defense” of self, others or property, is one affirmative defense.  The right to self-defense is a basic human right.  The laws on self-defense from ancient times; and in Minnesota today, recognize this.  The ancient Common Law rule has been codified into the Minnesota’s self-defense statute, Minnesota Statutes Section 609.06.  More on our page: self-defense in Minnesota.

Other types of defenses

Beyond the two main categories of defenses, we have defenses that point to evidence.  The United States Constitution and the Minnesota Constitution provide many  criminal defenses.  Many of these deal with evidence.  In addition, other laws help us weigh or exclude questionable evidence.

Minneapolis Criminal Defense Attorney Thomas Gallagher

Contact Criminal Attorney Thomas Gallagher by phone, to discuss your case
Contact Criminal Attorney Thomas Gallagher by phone, to discuss your case

We have many types of specific criminal defenses.  Here we have discussed the two main categories.

Have a question about Minnesota criminal defenses?  Call Minneapolis Criminal Defense Attorney Thomas Gallagher at 612 333-1500.