Section 2.5: Excuse Defenses

Fundamentals of Criminal Law by Adam J. McKee

An act typically subject to a criminal penalty can be deemed justified and thus exempt from criminal liability when it preserves an important societal value. For instance, self-defense serves as a protective measure against threats, ensuring the sanctity of human life.

On the other hand, excuses offer a defense rooted in the idea that even if a defendant engaged in a criminal act, they are not to be held morally responsible. Within this framework, the defendant acknowledges the wrongness of the act but argues against their moral culpability. A classic example of this is the defense of legal insanity, which excuses criminal liability based on the presence of a mental disease or defect.

Excuse Defenses: An Overview

Excuses can arise from various circumstances, each distinct and requiring individual examination. Common scenarios include instances influenced by youth, intoxication, or the absence of criminal intent due to mental impairments. Furthermore, instances where the defendant acts under the threat of impending harm, a factual error, or due to external manipulation, can also serve as potential excuses. The unifying theme of excuse defenses is the belief that the defendants, given their situations, shouldn’t be deemed morally at fault, exonerating them from criminal accountability.

Lack of Legitimate Choice

Central to excuse defenses is the notion that at times, criminal defendants might not have a genuine choice regarding the intent behind their actions. If successfully demonstrated in court, this lack of genuine choice can result in the defendant’s actions being excused. Circumstances leading to this lack of choice can be diverse.

Mistaken Belief

Some defenses are anchored in the idea of an error or misunderstanding. If a defendant acted under a mistaken belief about a vital fact, the justice system may be hesitant to penalize them, especially if the act wouldn’t be prosecutable under the perceived circumstances.

Mental Impairments

Another segment of excuse defenses centers around actions influenced by a significant mental disease or defect. Such conditions can impede a defendant’s capacity to make rational decisions, thereby serving as grounds for their actions to be excused.

External Influence

There are also defenses grounded in the idea that the decision to commit a crime wasn’t inherently the defendant’s. These situations often involve a third party exerting undue influence over the defendant, compelling them to act against their will or better judgment. In such cases, it’s essential to discern what external circumstances or influences might have diminished the defendant’s criminal intent.

Modification History

File Created:  07/17/2018

Last Modified:  09/26/2023

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This work is licensed under an Open Educational Resource-Quality Master Source (OER-QMS) License.

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