Abuse Excuse

Abuse Excuse

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.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 whether the brothers were killers or whether they acted out due to the years of alleged abuse they had suffered. In a second trial in 1995, however, the jury convicted the brothers of first-degree murder notwithstanding the evidence of abuse, and the judge sentenced them to life in prison without the possibility of Parole.

In 1993, Lorena Bobbitt was indicted for malicious wounding after cutting off her sleeping husband's penis during the middle of the night. At her trial, her defense team introduced evidence of a history of sexual and physical abuse committed by the husband, John, against Lorena. Unlike the Menendez case, where the defense conceded that the brothers were criminally responsible for their actions, Lorena's defense team used the evidence to prove the insanity defense. In 1994, a jury found her not guilty of the crime by reason of insanity.

Scholars have noted that the employment of the abuse excuse as a defense is more viable if it is used to prove insanity, which happened in the Lorena Bobbitt case. Commentators have also noted that evidence of prior abuse, whether substantiated or not, has been used in settings other than criminal defense. For instance, a wife may accuse a husband of Sexual Abuse during Divorce proceedings or an adult woman may sue her father for sexual abuse that allegedly occurred when the woman was a child.

Further readings

Arenella, Peter. 1996. "Demystifying the Abuse Excuse: Is There One?" Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy 19.

Becker, Mary E. 1998. "The Abuse Excuse and Patriarchal Narratives." Northwestern University Law Review 92.

Wilson, James Q. 1997. Moral Judgment: Does the Abuse Excuse Threaten Our Legal System? New York: Basic Books.

References in periodicals archive ?
(21) Paul Litton, The "Abuse Excuse" in Capital Sentencing Trials: Is It Relevant to Responsibility, Punishment, or Neither?, 42 Am.
Yet, the statistics and Otnow Lewis's own research do not bear out either the cycle of abuse or the abuse excuse. In a sample of 595 men, David Lisak, Jim Hopper, and Pat Song found that thirty-eight per cent of sexually abused males became perpetrators themselves (721).
The young people Hubner introduces us to are fierce in their demand that each among them take responsibility for the choices he has made, and in their rejection of anything resembling an excuse--including what the more flippant of the law--and-order crew have come to call "the abuse excuse." At Capital Offenders, an examination of past abuse is not a card played in an attempt to deflect responsibility but rather a starting point for a conversation intended to heal.
Dershowitz, The Abuse Excuse: And Other Cop-Outs, Sob Stories, and Evasions of Responsibility (Boston, 1994); and James Q.
If his effort to convince the reader of the dangers of a new abuse excuse is less than completely persuasive, it is because Downs himself overlooks or ignores such crucial details as the actual criminal law contexts in which abuse evidence is offered.
But that is no excuse, she argues, for abandoning the "reasonable man" standard, admitting every celebrity-killer "abuse excuse" and "sympathy defense" circumstances, or (a la her discussion of Johnny Cochran!s tactics) subverting the fact-seeking trial process with emotional pleas to "Send them a message." Her reasonable woman standard is as powerful as it is simple: The system should do everything within the realm of constitutional and moral propriety to convict and punish the guilty and acquit the innocent.
These excuses range from the Twinkie Defense, a claim of impaired judgment due to the toxic effects of junk food, to claims of psychosexual abuse, to the abuse excuse - that a woman may castrate or shoot a brutal husband even though he is asleep.
The "abuse excuse," a phrase coined and then exploited by provocative Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz in a 1994 book, constitutes shorthand for the complaint that too many criminal defendants win acquittal or leniency because of the deprivations or horrors of their existence.
Therefore, the way in which courts historically have treated psychological expert testimony is crucial to analyzing the abuse excuse defenses.
Retributive rage is fueled by our belief that an autonomous agent-self is in control, and when the existence or capacities of the agent are called into question-as they were in Susan Smith's case and in other "abuse excuse" cases such as the Bobbitt and Menendez trials-the rage diminishes.
His most recent book, The Abuse Excuse, which comes out this month, explores the phenomenon of using a history of abuse to justify violent conduct.
Having argued the only syndrome defense - urban psychosis - not maligned in Professor Alan Dershowitz's book is both a blessing and a slight, but it leaves this writer uniquely qualified to review The Abuse Excuse: And Other Cop-outs, Sob Stories, and Evasions of Responsibility.