What is a Criminal Defendant?

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  • Written By: Matt Brady
  • Edited By: Jenn Walker
  • Last Modified Date: 04 February 2020
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A criminal defendant is the party accused of a crime in a criminal case. The defendant is accused by a criminal prosecutor—the equivalent of the plaintiff in civil cases. The role of prosecutor is filled by a national, regional or other government entity whose jurisdiction the case falls under. The criminal defendant will either be proven innocent or, if found guilty, face a prison term or a monetary fine. Prison terms are often accompanied with probation periods and community service programs. Some countries and regions also sentence criminal defendants to the death penalty if the punishment seems worthy of the crime.

There are key differences between criminal defendants and civil defendants. In a criminal case, the criminal defendant is prosecuted not by the party who may have been wronged, but by a regional or national governmental entity representing that party. In a civil case, however, the plaintiff prosecuting the defendant and the party claiming injury are one and the same. Of course, in a civil case, the defendant also is not in danger of receiving criminal charges.


A criminal defendant is afforded a certain measure of rights, which can vary greatly depending on the country in which the crime was committed. In the United States, the U.S. Constitution guarantees the right to a fair and speedy public trial by jury—if the possible prison sentence exceeds six months—as well as the right to an attorney. If the defendant can't afford an attorney, the government must provide one. Not all countries offer the right to a trial by jury, opting instead to settle cases solely with a judge or panel of judges. Russia, for example, has done away with trial by jury for certain criminal cases. Although juries can be flawed, they can also help prevent corrupt or mistaken judges from handing down unfair sentences.

Protection against double jeopardy is another unique right that many countries recognize; this practice protects a criminal defendant from being tried for the same crime twice. Many countries also honor criminal defendants' rights not to incriminate themselves. This means that they have the right to remain silent while in police custody. It also means that they may refuse to be a witness in their own trial. This is often not the case in civil trials, in which a defendant may be obligated to testify, even if that testimony will be self-incriminating.


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Post 4

@NathanG - I agree that such a perception exists, but there are other reasons for not testifying. For example, it may very well be that the defendant is in fact innocent, but that they don’t feel comfortable up on the stand.

Maybe they feel intimidated by the prosecution; it’s easy in that setting to stumble over your testimony and say things you never meant, unintentionally hanging yourself in the process so to speak.

Don’t forget that federal criminal lawyers are good at what they do. They’ll try to nail you with leading questions (if they can get away with it) or try to elicit information that will bolster their case. Regardless, the freedom not to testify is a fair right, in my opinion, notwithstanding the perception it may create in the eyes of the jurors.

Post 3

@strawCake - I was on jury duty once in a criminal trial. The defendant was accused of murder, but he never once took the stand to testify.

As the article correctly points out, he didn’t have to. Furthermore, even if you testify, you can take the 5th amendment. This basically frees you from saying anything that could lead to self-incrimination.

In my opinion, whether you refuse to testify or take the 5th amendment, while you may be exercising your legal rights, it does kind of make you look guilty.

Why would you not testify if you had nothing to hide? The same goes for pleading the 5th amendment. Of course, the perception that you have something to hide is not the same as criminal guilt.

In our trial the criminal defense lawyer made it clear that her client would not testify, and then proceeded to take apart the prosecution’s case. After deliberation, we returned a verdict of not guilty.

Post 2

@sunnySkys - Well I'm glad you don't run the country! Everyone has a right to a fair trial. I don't think being forced to testify against yourself is very fair!

I think it's crazy that some countries don't allow a criminal defendant to have a jury trial. Deciding a serious criminal case is too much of a responsibility for one person, I think. It's much better to have a group of people make the decision.

Post 1

I knew that a defendant didn't have to testify in their own criminal trial, but I had no idea a defendant could be obligated to testify in a civil trial. That seems pretty unfair. I feel like the standard should be the same for both.

And honestly, I think that a criminal defendant should be obligated to testify at their own trial. It could make a big difference to a jury to hear their answers to certain questions, rather than hearing things from other witnesses. I suppose the defendant could always lie, but I still think it should be legal.

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