Criminal defenses: Excuse and exculpation defenses

You're on trial for a crime, but you don't think you should be convicted even though yes, you did commit the crime. Is this possible? Absolutely.

by Beverly Rice
updated May 11, 2023 ·  9min read

Most criminal defenses fall under two categories, excuse, and exculpation. An excuse exempts a person from potential liability because that person belongs to a group sharing a common characteristic. A police officer who injures a suspect during a lawful arrest may be immune from prosecution because she was acting in the course of official duties. An ambulance driver won't be cited for speeding while en route to an emergency. Members of the armed forces and other civil organizations may also be excused from liability when acting in the course of their official duties.

With an exculpation defense, the accused admits wrongdoing but argues he or she should be freed from culpability or assessed reduced liability (in civil cases) for the crime due to mitigating circumstances surrounding the offense.

Protecting yourself and others

Self-defense involves acts of violence or deadly force committed to protecting oneself or another person. This defense is based on the belief that people should be allowed to protect themselves from physical danger. The degree of violence used must be comparable or in proportion to the threat faced.

The key issues of a self-defense case are:

  • Who was the aggressor?
  • Was the defendant's belief of physical harm reasonable?
  • Was the force used by the defendant reasonable?

An individual does not have to wait until he is attacked to commit an act of self-defense.

If a reasonable person under similar circumstances would think he is about to be harmed, then he has the right to strike first. It is important for the defendant's force to be reasonable given the imminent danger. Otherwise, the jury may reject the self-defense claim. Killing someone with a baseball bat who just slapped you in the face would be considered unreasonable use of force; returning the slap would a more sensible retaliation.

The same rules apply if the defendant was acting to protect another party. There must have been a reasonable belief that the third party was in danger of being physically harmed for the self-defense argument to succeed. If Jones comes upon Baker and Lee fighting in the street and jumps in to restrain Lee, who he perceives to be the aggressor, Jones can claim self-defense if his actions injure or kill Lee. Jones couldn't however, claim self-defense if he intervened in an illegal fight involving his friends or family, or to aid a criminal in any activity.

Victims of abuse

Physical and psychological abuse can lead people to commit violent acts against their tormentors. A defendant facing charges in this instance could employ the abuse defense, a specialized version of self-defense. Battered woman syndrome is an example of the abuse defense. Although some medical professionals debate the severity of this mental condition, the courts have allowed admission of battered woman syndrome into evidence in trials.

A person can use the battered woman defense when she has endured constant and severe domestic violence, usually physical abuse from a spouse or partner, and has become so mentally and physically beaten that she feels her only escape is to commit an violent act against her abuser.

The abuse defense can also be invoked by defendants who were victims of sexual or child abuse. Evidence of abuse is an important fact to be considered during the sentencing phase of a trial. A defense attorney may argue that his client's culpability should be reduced because the criminal behavior was influenced by physical or mental abuse inflicted in the past or present.

Such evidence is especially helpful in battered wife cases. Francine Hughes, subject of the 1970s book The Burning Bed, endured 13 years of domestic violence at the hands of her husband. She burned down her house with a drunk, sleeping Mr. Hughes inside. Testimony about her abusive relationship helped Hughes receive a not guilty by reason of temporary insanity verdict. This example shows how the abuse defense can stray into areas covered by other defenses such as insanity, provocation, and diminished responsibility.

A just murder

A woman kills an assailant who is trying to rape her. A store clerk fatally wounds a gunman during a holdup. A man kills an intruder found breaking into his home. When is killing someone justified?

A justifiable homicide defense involves a case that would otherwise have been a murder or intentional killing that excuses the accused from all or some criminal liability. Although there is no real legal standard for a homicide to be considered justifiable, the defense is considered valid if the murder was done to prevent a serious crime, the assailant's intent to commit the crime was clear, and the defendant had no alternative method of defense other than to kill the victim.

Innocence by insanity

The insanity defense prevents a mentally incapacitated person from being criminally punished. It is based on the M'Naghten rule, which defines insanity as the inability to determine right from wrong. Due to mental illness, the defendant was incapable of controlling his actions, or, the defendant knew his actions were wrong but could not control them (irresistible impulse).

This defense rests heavily on the testimony of a psychiatrist, who after examining the accused, reviewing his or her background, and looking at the case facts, makes a determination of insanity.

High profile insanity defendants such as John Hinkley, David Berkowitz, Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy, and Charles Manson lead the public to believe this defense is invoked on a regular basis.

However, defendants rarely use it—probably because the courts and juries rarely buy it. Of the five defendants mentioned, only Hinkley received a not guilty verdict. Getting off on an insanity plea doesn't mean the accused goes unpunished. The court will sentence the defendant to a mental institution and quite often the sentence is longer than a prison term would have been.

Another variation on the insanity defense is diminished responsibility or capacity. The defendant's mental state was not to the point of insanity, but there was some type of defect that impaired his mental function such as extremely low intelligence and post-traumatic stress disorder.

The success of diminished responsibility as a defense varies among judges and juries, sometimes producing a not guilty verdict, while other times a guilty verdict to a lesser charge (manslaughter instead of murder) or mitigated sentence.

Acting under the influence

Involuntary intoxication doesn't excuse criminal conduct. The law expects a person to know that drinking and taking drugs affects mental functioning and therefore holds one legally responsible for acts occurring under the influence.

However, a defendant may use the under the influence defense to claim mental faculties were so impaired due to drugs or alcohol that he or she should not be held accountable for actions taken. The key is specific intent, i.e., meaning to kill the victim. The defendant will argue he or she was too drunk or stoned to have formed intent. This defense is unlikely to win an acquittal but it could get the accused a lesser sentence (assault with a deadly weapon instead of assault with intent to kill).

When you aren't in control

During an epileptic seizure, Donna loses control of her car, crashes into a sidewalk, and injures two pedestrians. Her best defense is automatism, a combination of excuse and exculpation.

Donna was not in control of her actions due to a physical problem (epilepsy) so she will argue this excuses her from liability and frees her from culpability for the injuries and damage caused by the accident. A jury could acquit or render a guilty verdict with mitigating sentencing. In a civil case, the liability incurred could be reduced or forgiven if the defendant is found guilty.

Children and crime

Some states allow the infancy defense which excuses a minor from liability for acts that would qualify as a criminal if committed by an adult. In some cases, the prosecutor or judge has the discretion to decide whether the minor understood his actions were wrong, and, to proceed to try the individual as an adult. A murder charge will almost always get a teen-aged defendant tried as an adult rather than a juvenile.

The infancy defense is also valid in civil law cases. The minor is excused from the contract, tort, or other legal situations if she has only a minimal understanding of the transaction entered into. With age comes more understanding, thus, an older child's punishment for illegal acts will be evaluated on whether it is best to favor the child's interest or the aggrieved party involved in the transaction.

The entrapment defense

Can the government trick you into committing a crime and then prosecute you for doing so? Yes, it's called entrapment. The government uses it in cases involving drugs, bribery of public officials, counterfeiting, price controlling, and prostitution. Entrapment as a defense rarely succeeds, especially if the defendant has prior convictions for the same crime or the jury believes the accused was predisposed to commit the offense anyway.

One famous case using the entrapment defense worked in the defendant's favor. In the '80s, John Delorean fell for a government sting operation in which he was to receive $24 million if he invested $1.8 million to import cocaine into the U.S. The cash-strapped carmaker took the bait and was arrested. A federal judge acquitted Delorean ruling that government agents entrapped the auto guru by making him an offer that was impossible to refuse.

The government scored big time in the 1970s Abscam case. This FBI sting operation caught several congressman on tape accepting bribes in return for political favors to a non-existent sheik. Six congressmen were convicted of bribery and conspiracy charges. Only one of the cases was overturned on appeal.

Mutual agreement

If two parties consent to engage in an act that results in injury to one of them, has a crime been committed? A defendant using the consent defense maintains no crime was committed because the actions in question were done with the victim's consent.

Consent as a defense is rarely successful against criminal liability. It does not apply to cases involving incest, excessive violence (i.e. spousal abuse), or consensual sex involving a minor and an adult. Once a crime has been established, it is irrelevant that the victim consented to the activity. This includes accidental deaths that occur during sexual bondage activities.

The defense fairs a little better in civil matters. Tom registers for a local hockey team. He signs a form indicating he's aware of the risks involved in the sport. Tom gets accidentally cut by Paul's skate. If Tom sues for damages, a consent defense has a good chance of absolving Paul of any civil liability in the matter.

Consent is also not a defense for crimes of deception and fraud. Mrs. Sharp may have unknowingly agreed to a fraudulent land deal, however, the person who scammed her cannot use the consent defense to avoid prosecution. The criminal court system can sometimes provide relief for individuals duped by fraud and deceptive practices.

A great many defenses are acceptable in criminal courts. While you don't need to be a lawyer to commit a crime, understanding the court system to a degree promises to help your case significantly. Make sure the American court system works in your favor, familiarize yourself with the many paths to justice.

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About the Author

Beverly Rice

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This portion of the site is for informational purposes only. The content is not legal advice. The statements and opinions are the expression of the author, not LegalZoom, and have not been evaluated by LegalZoom for accuracy, completeness, or changes in the law.