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Planning your defense against conspiracy charges

A classic movie tells the story of two men who meet on a train and begin discussing their personal burdens. One man wants to divorce his wife, and the other man hates his father. The two agree that the best plan is for each to do away with the other's problem. However, the married man thinks it's all talk until his wife ends up dead.

If you have seen the movie, you remember that the married man finds himself swept up in a web of murder and conspiracy, trying to prove his innocence because, after all, he did agree to the plan. If you are currently facing charges of conspiracy, you may understand the character's feelings of frustration and panic.

What is conspiracy?

The legal definition of conspiracy has three elements:

  • You and at least one other person agreed to commit a crime.
  • Among those of you who planned the crime, at least one person took steps to further the plan, although not necessarily committing the crime.
  • You understood that you were agreeing to commit a crime and fully intended to carry out the deed.

In other words, in a fit of rage, someone may declare that they want to kill someone, but if they have no real intention of committing murder, no conspiracy exists. Additionally, you and others may plan the perfect crime, but if you see this conversation as merely a game of "what-ifs," you may not be guilty of conspiracy, even if someone else in the group follows through.

The problems with conspiracy laws

On the other hand, if, after discussing the perfect crime, you purchase a gun — which is your legal right to do — Tennessee investigators may see that as proof of your willingness to participate in the crime, even if the gun purchase is unrelated. This is one of the problems law scholars have with conspiracy laws. Other issues include:

  • Conspiracy laws may infringe on your constitutional rights to speak freely and associate with whom you will.
  • Investigators may hold you responsible for another person's actions simply because you associated with that person.
  • Your true purposes are known only to you, but a conspiracy charge may allow a judge or jury to make assumptions about your intentions.

Law scholars believe the laws concerning conspiracy charges need to be reformed. Currently, a prosecutor has a great deal of flexibility in presenting evidence of a conspiracy, and sometimes the theories change as a trial progresses. Scholars would like the scope of conspiracy to be firmly set before trial begins. Additionally, some law professors feel jury instructions should be more precise since current instructions tend to allow juries to convict based on how they interpret your conversations.

The uncertainty you feel in the face of conspiracy charges is well founded. Depending on the circumstances, a conviction may result in harsh penalties, including years behind bars. Seeking legal counsel at your earliest opportunity may improve your chances of a more positive outcome.

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Mark Scruggs, Trial Attorney
95 White Bridge Rd. Ste 508
Nashville, TN 37205

Phone: 615-988-4128
Fax: 615-356-6954
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