What are mitigating circumstances in a criminal case?

Criminal cases aren’t over when the jury comes in with a verdict. In many cases, a guilty verdict will just start the next phase of the trial.

For the defense, a conviction usually means focusing (at least for a while) on mitigation. Mitigation is the process of helping the judge or jury understand the defendant’s circumstances so that they can “make the sentence fit the crime.”

What sort of things can factor into mitigation?

At its core, mitigation is the process of showing the judge or jury why they should be lenient with a defendant. For example, if a defendant is convicted of embezzling from their clients, mitigating factors might include things like:

  • Their lack of a prior criminal record and general good character throughout their past, as evidenced by the testimony of those who know them best
  • The circumstances that led to the embezzlement (such as financial pressures at home due to a spouse’s illness or desperation to feed an addiction)
  • Mental health issues, such as bipolar disorder that went undiagnosed and untreated until their world came crashing down around them
  • Their genuine remorse and shame for what they’ve done and the pain they’ve caused
  • Their willingness and ability to make financial restitution to their victims
  • The likelihood that they will not re-offend and the fact their crime was non-violent
  • Their own poor physical health, which would make prison unduly harsh on them
  • Their involvement in their community, their church and their family life

It’s important to remember that every case is unique — and every defendant has a story. Even when two people are charged and convicted of identical crimes, the outcomes of their cases may be very different due to mitigation efforts by their defense teams.