Abuse Excuse

Author:Jeffrey Lehman, Shirelle Phelps

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Description of efforts by some criminal defendants to negate criminal responsibility by showing that they could not tell right from wrong due to abuse by their spouses or parents. Although this defense is not specifically recognized in substantive CRIMINAL LAW, it has been used successfully in some cases to prove, for example, the INSANITY DEFENSE.

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Using prior sexual or other physical abuse as evidence in a criminal defense is largely a result of research regarding mental disorders caused by such abuse. Psychologists and other researchers have identified disorders, including post-traumatic stress disorder and battered woman syndrome, as causes for severe emotional instability that can lead to violent acts by the victim against his or her abuser. Some writers have advocated more widespread use of such evidence to mitigate the punishment of victims who commit violent acts.

Other scholars and writers disagree, noting that substantive criminal law does not recognize the abuse excuse as a legitimate defense except in some limited circumstances, such as those involving the insanity defense. Harvard law professor ALAN DERSHOWITZ coined the term in his 1994 book, The Abuse Excuse, where he deems the studies regarding psychological disorders caused by abuse as "psychobabble." Dershowitz and other critics disagree not only with the use of abuse as mitigating evidence of criminal intent, but also with the results of the studies themselves. According to these critics, especially Dershowitz, the abuse excuse fails to distinguish between the reasons why a person committed a crime and the responsibility for committing the crime.

In a few high profile cases during the late 1980s and 1990s, defendants sought to avoid criminal responsibility for their crimes by introducing evidence of prior abuse. In 1989, Lyle and Erik Menendez, ages 21 and 18 respectively, brutally killed their parents in the family's California home. At their first trial for murder in 1993, the brothers' defense team introduced evidence that the men's father, Jose Menendez, had sexually abused his sons for a number of years. Because of this abuse, Lyle and Eric, according to the defense, killed their parents out of fear. In raising the evidence of abuse, the defense sought to reduce the conviction from murder to voluntary MANSLAUGHTER. The defense won a victory of sorts when the first trial ended in a hung jury because the jurors could not agree...

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