Criminal Defenses in Minnesota Courts
In law school, they teach in the basic criminal law course that a “crime” is an intentional act defined by law as illegal, for which the law provides a criminal remedy of prison, jail or fine; and, that every crime is made up of “elements” or parts. In order for the government (or its lawyer the prosecutor) to prove the accused “guilty,” it must produce evidence in court to prove each and every “element” of the crime, as defined by statute.
Criminal statutes are many. Of the thousands of crimes defined, some have many elements, while some have few. Each criminal statute must be reviewed and analyzed to find the “elements” which must each be proved before an accused can be said to be “guilty” of any crime charged or claimed by the government. Every crime must include at least three, generic “elements:”
- Actus reus – a Latin phrase meaning “performing the act.” Did the accused perform the act forbidden by the statute? (Criminal act.)
- Mens rea – a Latin phrase meaning “intent to do the act.” Did the accused intend to do the act? (Criminal intent.)
- Identity. If someone committed a crime (if someone intentionally did a forbidden act), can it be determined who did so? (Identity.)
Two Types of Criminal Defenses
There are two types of criminal defenses. Since the burden of coming up with evidence in court is on the government, the main type of defense is the “burden of proof” defense as to each “element” of the crime claimed (“charged”) by the government. The other type of defense, less common, is an “affirmative defense” where the accused must shoulder the initial burden of producing evidence of the existence of the defense (prima facie evidence). Once done, the burden of overcoming the affirmative defense then shifts to the prosecutor.
Burden of Proof Defense:
Remember, every crime is made up of several parts or elements; and part must be proven before the accused can be guilty of the crime claimed. If persuasive proof is lacking on just one element of a crime, then the accused is “not guilty.” Let’s look at a hypothetical example.
Adam Apple is out hunting with is son, Johnny Apple. While climbing over a fence in the countryside, Adam drops his shotgun which discharges – killing Johnny. Adam is charged with Murder. Is he guilty? The evidence at trial is strong that Adam was there, and dropped his gun, which caused Johnny’s death. So, the “actus reus” and identity elements seem satisfied. But what about intent? If Adam dropped the shotgun by accident while climbing over the fence, then he did not intent to fire it at Johnny. Since there is not enough evidence that it was an intentional act, the jury finds Adam not-guilty of the crime charged. Proof of the “intent element” was lacking. Justice was done.
An affirmative defense is a defense that the accused (through defense counsel) must provide some evidence that the defense existed. Though the standard of proof is less than the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard the government is held to when it attempts to prove the elements of a crime, the defense must make some showing that an “affirmative defense” in fact existed. If it can persuade the jury so, 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 – recognized from ancient times; and recognized in the laws on self-defense in Minnesota. 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.