At the end of a criminal trial, a jury or judge decides whether or not a defendant is guilty or not guilty. A judge and a jury both have the option to find the defendant guilty of lesser included offenses, also known as a “responsive verdict.”
A responsive verdict is when the judge or jury did not feel the facts and law met the legal requirements of the crime charged but still believed the defendant was guilty of a lesser crime. Responsive verdicts are crimes similar in nature to the crime charged, but they may have an element or two of the original charge not included. For example, during a trial where the defendant is charged with armed robbery, the possible verdicts would not solely be guilty or not guilty of armed robbery. Instead, there are several possible verdicts including armed robbery, attempted armed robbery, first-degree robbery, attempted first-degree robbery, simple robbery, attempted simple robbery, and not guilty.
Using an armed robbery trial as an example, let’s look at reasons why a judge or jury might look to responsive verdicts instead of a guilty charge of armed robbery. If the prosecution proved that the defendant was armed, approached an individual, and tried to take something of value, then they did not prove the elements of an armed robbery since nothing was taken. Those facts do line up fairly well with the charge of attempted armed robbery, though. If, on the other hand, the jury did not believe the prosecution proved that the defendant used a dangerous weapon, but only led the victim to believe they were armed with a dangerous weapon, then the jury may deliver a responsive verdict of first-degree robbery instead.
Considering the above examples, we can see how responsive verdicts are a valuable and necessary aspect of the criminal trial process. It would be unfair to defendants to convict them of crimes like an armed robbery when they only committed a simple robbery. A finding of guilt on a lesser charge can make a huge difference when it comes to sentencing.
It’s important to understand the elements of the crime or crimes you have been charged with. Throughout the trial, the prosecution has to prove all elements of the crime or crimes have been met. If the prosecution fails to prove all of the elements, then the criminal defense attorney will use the prosecution’s failure in their closing arguments to argue for either a not guilty charge or a responsive verdict depending on the circumstances of the case.