The not-guilty verdict in the nationally publicized De Lorean case brings the so-called ''entrapment'' defense to the fore. Right now, entrapment, like the insanity plea, is seldom used as a defense to criminal charges. But both spark heated controversy since, if successfully used, they may lead to acquittals in cases where there is an admission of guilt as well as overwhelming evidence of the defendant's culpability.
''Entrapment'' is generally seen as an act by a police officer or the government for the purposes of prosecution, which induces a person to commit a crime he had not contemplated.
The focus in the California trial of automaker John Z. De Lorean - who was accused of trafficking in millions of dollars' worth of drugs - turned from the defendant's actions to whether a government ''sting'' operation had improperly lured him into unlawful activity. The jury decided against the government and acquitted the carmaker.
Will this give new impetus to the entrapment defense?
Probably not, although lawyers hope this verdict will deter government entrapment. Recent US Supreme Court rulings cut back on admitting improperly gathered evidence and generally curb the range of ''due process'' protections. In this light, some believe that lawyers may find the entrapment defense tempting.
Defense attorneys, however, should eye this route warily, says Milwaukee, Wis., criminal defense lawyer Stephen Glynn. ''We'll see a rash of entrapment cases now (after De Lorean),'' Mr. Glynn predicts. But he says it will still be a rough road to persuade juries to acquit defendants who have, in effect, admitted guilt. He says a De Lorean-type verdict would not likely be handed down in most areas of his state.
The real value of De Lorean, Glynn says, is that it may serve as a deterrent to government misconduct or ''outrageous'' actions in the pursuit of a conviction.
Prof. Michael Perlin of New York Law School, who has practiced criminal defense law for many years, points out that the entrapment defense has been used mainly in cases involving illegal money, drugs, and guns.
Legal cases raise these issues:
Did the government agent induce the accused to commit the offense?
Was the accused ready, willing, and able - without persuasion - to commit the crime?
Professor Perlin points out that the burden is on a defendant to prove ''inducement.''
But the state must prove that the accused would have acted in a similar manner - even if not enticed by government actions.
US courts have differed in defining what constitutes ''entrapment.'' A US Supreme Court ruling in 1958 held that the standard is whether a government agent has ''convinced an otherwise unwilling person to commit a criminal act.''
Perlin adds, however, that ''at least four (US Supreme Court) justices have suggested that even when there is 'predisposition' on the part of a defendant, a conviction may still be barred if there is 'outrageous' police conduct.''
Mr. Glynn suggests that the De Lorean verdict may be ''sui generis'' (unique unto itself). He explains that the combination of an attractive defendant and an attractive wife, sleazy government procedures, and a federal judge stressing constitutional protections, all pointed to acquittal.