Excusing and Punishing in Criminal Adjudication: A Reality Check
UVA Law Faculty Affiliations
The popular press is replete with stories claiming the so-called "abuse excuse" typifies a proliferating array of blame-shifting psychological defenses in criminal proceedings.' Some writers further suggest these so-called "syndrome defenses" reflect and reveal a softening of public attitudes toward personal responsibility and a greater willingness to excuse criminal wrongdoing.
Though these are empirical claims, I doubt they are true. First, there is no evidence the law is becoming more receptive to excuse claims. When socalled syndrome evidence has been admitted on a defendant's behalf, the evidence has almost always been relevant either to well-established defenses, such as self-defense or duress, or to previously established grounds of mitigation in murder cases, such as the "extreme mental or emotional disturbance" which reduces murder to manslaughter in New York. Second, there is no persuasive evidence that judges or juries are now more frequently excusing defendants. Of course, there are occasional verdicts which seem to stretch or even nullify the governing law. However, these cases are aberrations. Admittedly, these aberrational verdicts could signal a trend if they reflect or portend a sympathetic change in the community's moral intuitions. But there is little, if any, evidence that the public at large is becoming more receptive to blame-shifting defenses. If anything, I detect a hardening public attitude, not a more forgiving one. In short, the supposed proliferation of excuses is a figment of the media's.collective imagination.