Abuse Excuse: Getting away with murder

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            Many suffer at the hands of abusers. Women and children, even men suffer abuse from authorities, including their own parents and even government officials and authorities.  Abuse can come in all sorts of forms and sizes. Physical, emotional, even sexual abuse is not an uncommon phenomenon in our society. The local, even world news abounds with stories of abuse and battery of wives, children and even men, and society is appalled. But what happens when criminals are caught and tried for various crimes including brutal ones and defense lawyers use their history of prior abuses as an excuse for the crimes they commit?  Is this a feasible defense or when is it feasible to use this excuse?  Should such even be considered as a legitimate excuse to hurt, maim and abuse another human being? 

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            It might be derived that the ‘abuse excuse’ is not actually recognized in criminal law. The hype media created secondary to some exceptional cases made such a myth.  The defense of temporary insanity that allows a defendant to counteract responsibility for a crime due to victimization in the past, such is rarely successful although given as a partial excuse for the crime can lower the severity of the charge and its concomitant punishment, a good example will be the reduction of a charge from murder to voluntary manslaughter.  The case of Lorena Bobbit was one rare cases of successful defense using temporary insanity and this also gave rise to the thought of the ‘abuse excuse’ (Peter, 1996).

            I believe that abuse no matter what form it takes is abuse and no one should suffer from it and whoever dishes out such actions should be punishable and liable, but it should also not be used as a leverage to get away with murder, literally.

History of Abuse

            Research indicates that more often than not individuals who abuse others have a history of abuse themselves.  Statistics also show that more than 66% of abusers show a history of abuse from parents or parent figures or one out of three abused children will turn out to be abusive parents/spouses in their adulthood (Saisan, Jaffe-Gill & Segal, 2008).  Although if the child is given help or removed from their abusive states at an earlier time then the bigger chance they have of recovering and not repeating the same mistake.

            In the US, child protective services receive around 50,000 reports of suspected child abuse every week. Approximately 67% of these reported cases warrant enough evidence for investigation and around 896,000 children are found to be victims of abuse or neglect, roughly around 2,450 children per day suffer from abuse (Ianelli, 2007).  One report approximates that more than 2.5 million women experience some form of violence each year. Furthermore, almost 2 out of 3 women in this population have been attacked by either by relatives, even a parent or a person with which they are familiar with (HHS, 2007).

The Abuse Excuse

            An abused child, black rage, posttraumatic stress, sexual abuse syndrome, battered woman syndrome, these are only some of the variety of reasons provided by individuals who seek to evade accountability for a violent crime done.  Coined by Alan Dershowitz  as ‘abuse excuse’ in 1994, the phrase has become synonymous with the decline in moral values of the society when otherwise guilty people have made use of their past experiences in order to get away with killing, hurting or abusing others (Dowd, 1999).  Dershowitz (2006) himself agrees that the abuse excuse is an illogical thought, if the thought that someone is less responsible for actions done due to his demographics, culture and history is upheld then dire consequences for the ‘represented’ group by the defendant since this makes the case for racial profiling and liberty curtailing actions of the government/states that allow for surveillance and ‘prevention detention’ of a good many categories of people. Although supporters of the cause say that permitting the entrance of abuse as an excuse in the criminal courts allows the society to grow in the sense that people’s awareness of abuse and its consequence are more profound now (Neuman, 1994).

As a primary defense in a trial

It might be thought that making use of the abuse excuse as a primary defense in a trial is very risky indeed, since the burden of the defense is to prove to the court or the jury that indeed it is the abuse that caused the actions of the defendant especially in cases where there seemed to be pre-mediation. Many scholars and writers notes that substantive criminal law does not value the abuse excuse as a legitimate defense except in some limited circumstances, such as those involving the insanity defense (jrank.org).

            Although a number of famous cases have used the abuse excuse as a defense with various outcomes.  Lorena Bobbit cut off her husband’s penis in his sleep, claimed that she was abused and battered by her husband that why she maimed him. She was acquitted of the crime secondary to temporary insanity (Weininger, 2000). There were the Menendez brothers who first had a hung jury but were later on found to be guilty of murdering their parents. They said that they were sexually abused by their father and their mother let him (Pergament, n.d.). There was also the case Colin Ferguson who while on a train started shooting the passengers and ultimately killed six people while injuring nineteen others. They used the black rage syndrome for his defense but he was not successful since Ferguson was found guilty and sentence to 300 years in prison (Montaldo, n.d.).  Another version of the abuse excuse is the ‘adopted child syndrome’ first uttered by Dr. David Kirshner, a psychologist and director of the psychotherapy clinic in Baltimore and was used by defense attorney Martin Efman to defend, Joel Rifkin, who admitted to killing 17 women, mostly prostitutes. He was given up for adoption by his mother, who he thinks was a prostitute, when he was a baby and as such, he felt her rejection and thus in order to alleviate the pain of rejection he strangled prostitutes.  Kirshner, also an expert witness on the issue,  testified in 10 adopted children who were charged with murder claiming that these ‘murderers’ had ‘adopted child syndrome’, they were rejected, so they cannot be held responsible for the killings (Koukl, 1994).

If this kind of psychobabble were not becoming so widespread in the courts nowadays, then it can be considered a sick joke. But the abuse excuses in its various forms are now slowly becoming the defense of choice for a good number of murder cases and it is scary to think that cold blooded murderers can get away with their crimes by using abuse as an excuse.

In sentencing

            The abuse excuse, in whatever form can be relevant in sentencing of a convicted felon. In a sense that the abuse humanizes the person convicted and is seen as a human being, maybe even a victim of his circumstance rather than simply a cold-blooded murderer (Litton 2005). These types of evidence of prior abuse are often found to be mitigating and sometimes can be used as a consideration to a more favorable sentence like life imprisonment rather than death penalty.

In the media

            The movie ‘Primal Fear’ made use of the abuse excuse in order to justify an altar boy’s brutal murder of the bishop who was abusing him (Imdb.com). The movie acquitted the accused of the crime, but the twist at the end realizes that the accused was actually guilty in the sense that it seemed that he was well aware of what he had done. The television medium as well did not remain untouched by this legal phenomenon since popular television series like law and order has used the depiction of abuse excuse as plotlines and storylines in the show (Gans-Boriskin, 2005)


In the end one may realize that the reality is that people abuse other people and a good number of these abusers suffered from abuse themselves, a vicious cycle indeed, but that does not negate their responsibility for any wrong they have done. Koukl (1994) writes “if they [the accused] didn’t have a moral obligation to do right because of their bad circumstances, why do we have to moral obligation to understand their bad circumstances and exercise leniency?” (par.2). Basically it is that simple, if the society will forego punishment of an individual owing to a terrible incident in their past that provoked them to do the crime, then eventually everyone should free from any such obligation to the law. That is ultimately saying that it is alright to put the law into your own hands. Yes, it is humane to sympathize with the plight of the abused, they were abused, battered and hurt but let’s not make it an excuse to abuse, batter and hurt others as well.

Works cited:

Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) (2007) Domestic Violence Fact Sheet. Retrieved on May 7, 2009 from http://www.athealth.com/Consumer/Disorders/ DomViolFacts.html
Dershowitz A. (2006) The Abuse Excuse: Zacarias Moussaoui’s lawyers float the “Impoverish French Muslim syndrome”. Retrieved on May 7, 2009 from http://www.slate.com /id/2140262/

Dowd, M (1999) Women and the abuse excuse. Retrieved on May 6, 2009 from http://library.findlaw.com/1999/Nov/1/129404.html

Gans-Boriskin R (2005) Mad or bad?: Negotiating the boundaries of mental illness on law and order.  Retrieved on May 5, 2009 from http://www.albany.edu/scj/jcjpc/ vol12is1/gans-boriskin.pdf

Ianelli V (2007) Child abuse statistics. Retrieved on May 8, 2009 from http://pediatrics.about. com/od/childabuse/a/05_abuse_stats.htm
Imdb.com (n.d) Primal Fear. Retrieved on May 7, 2009 from http://www.imdb.com /title/tt0117381/plotsummary

Jrank. Org (n.d) Abuse-Excuse. Retrieved on May 7, 2009 from http://law.jrank.org /pages/3932/Abuse-Excuse.html

Koukl G (1994) Stand to reason: Abuse Excuse. Retrieved on May 5, 2009 from http://www.str. org /site/News2?page=NewsArticle&id=5087

Litton P (2005) The “abuse excuse” in capital sentencing trials: is it relevant to responsibility, punishment, or neither? American Crimical Law Review. Retrieved on May 6, 2009 from http://goliath.ecnext.com/coms2/gi_0199-4654250/The-quot-abuse-excuse-quot.html-page.html

Montaldo, C (n.d.) Colin Ferguson. Retrieved on May 6, 2009 from http://crime.about. com/od/murder/p/frguson.htm

Neuman, E (1994) Abuse excuse goes on trial – cases in which defendants are forgiven for their crimes because they blame psychological abuse for their crimes. Insight on the News, March 28, 1994. Retrieved on May 6, 2009 from http://findarticles.com /p/articles/ mi_m1571/ is_n13_v10/ai_14976258/?tag=content;col1

Pergament, R (n.d.) The Menendez brothers. Retrieved on May 5, 2009 from http://www.trutv. com/library/crime/notorious_murders/famous/menendez/index_1.html
Peter A (1996) Demystifying the abuse excuse: is there one? [abstract]. Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy. Retrieved on May 6, 2009 from http://www.faqs.org/ abstracts/Political-science/Demystifying-the-abuse-excuse-is-there-one-The-use-and-abuse-of-history-in-Compassion-in-Dying.html

Saisan J, Jaffe-Gill E, & Segal J (2008) Child abuse and neglect: Warning signs of abuse and how to report it. Internet article at helpguide.org Retrieved on May 7, 2009 from http://helpguide.org/mental/child_abuse_physical_emotional_sexual_neglect.htm

Weininger, M (2000) The trials of Lorena Bobbit. Online. Accessed on May 8, 2009 from http://www.digitas.harvard.edu/~perspy/old/issues/2000/retro/lorena_bobbitt.html

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