Defendant Law and Legal Definition

A defendant, in criminal cases, is the person accused of the crime. In civil matters, the defendant is the person or entity that is being sued. In some states, or in certain types of actions, the defendant is called the respondent. The term respondent is also used to designate the person responding to an appeal.

In criminal litigation, the state must prove that the defendant satisfied each element of the statutory definition of the crime, and the defendant's participation, "beyond a reasonable doubt." Criminal defendants have certain fundamental rights, such as the right to a public jury trial, the right to be represented by an attorney, the right to adequate representation, the right to be free from double jeopardy, and the right to a speedy trial.

In criminal law, a guilty defendant is punished by either (1) incarceration in a jail or prison, (2) fine paid to the government, or, in exceptional cases, (3) execution of the defendant: the death penalty. In contrast, a defendant in civil litigation is never incarcerated and never executed. In general, a losing defendant in civil litigation only reimburses the plaintiff for losses caused by the defendant's behavior.