The word “conspiracy” may invoke thoughts of paranoid individuals rambling on about how the government is covering up evidence of UFOs. But conspiracies happen every day in a legal sense. If two people talk about committing a crime, and then take steps to do so, that is a criminal conspiracy in the eyes of the law.
What Defines a Criminal Conspiracy?
Under Texas law, a defendant is guilty of criminal conspiracy if the prosecution can prove two things. First, “if, with intent that a felony be committed,” the defendant enters into an agreement with at least one other person to “engage in conduct that would constitute the offense.” Second, the defendant must perform an “overt act” to further the conspiracy.
In a sense, conspiracy is a type of contract, albeit an illegal one. The key difference is that unlike a typical business contract, most criminal conspirators do not draft and sign a written agreement spelling out each party’s responsibilities. That is why a judge or jury must look at “overt acts” which demonstrate the existence of a conspiracy. Indeed, Texas law is quite clear that a conspiracy “may be inferred from acts of the parties.”
Is There a Defense to Criminal Conspiracy?
Conspiracy is a separate crime from the underlying offense that the conspirators plan to commit. This means it is not a defense to a conspiracy charge for a defendant to argue they did not participate in the actual crime. For example, let’s say two people agree to murder a third person. Conspirator A gives Conspirator B a gun to commit the act. Conspirator B then goes to the victim’s house and shoots her. Conspirator A is still guilty of conspiracy even though he was not even present at the actual murder. Giving the other conspirator the gun was an “overt act” designed to further the conspiracy.
It is also not a defense to conspiracy to argue the government has not prosecuted or convicted all of the other alleged conspirators. Continuing with the example above, Conspirator A can be convicted of conspiracy even if, for some reason, Conspirator B is not convicted of the underlying murder. In other cases, prosecutors may offer one or more conspirators immunity in exchange for testifying against other defendants. Say there was a Conspirator C (perhaps the person who drove Conspirator A to the murder scene) charged by the government and acquitted; that acquittal would not prevent a jury from convicting Conspirator A. However, if “two or more co-conspirators” are acquitted after being tried, that can serve as a defense for any other conspirators charged.
What Are the Penalties for Criminal Conspiracy?
Conspiracy is not a small matter. Texas law treats any conspiracy conviction as the equivalent of “one category lower than the most serious felony that is the object of the conspiracy.” In other words, if Conspirator B is convicted of murder—a capital felony—than Conspirator A is guilty of a First Degree felony, which can result in life in prison.
The seriousness of a conspiracy charge means you should not try to fight it without professional legal advice. An experienced Houston conspiracy attorney can advise you of your rights and advocate for your interests in court. Contact the Law Offices of Tad Nelson & Associates if you need to speak with a criminal defense lawyer right away.