Abuse defense

Abuse defense

The abuse defense is a criminal law defense, sometimes termed as "innovative defense", by which defendants may argue that they should not be held criminally liable for breaking the law, as they were abused whether as physical abuse or psychological abuse.


This represents a specialized version of the excuse of self-defense or the exculpation of provocation, which may stray into areas covered by the insanity defense. Hence, if as the result of abuse, the defendant begins to suffer from a mental illness such as battered woman syndrome, this could invoke the M'Naghten Rules or their statutory versions as a mental disorder defence. The defendant may also plead evidence that he or she became subject to an irresistible impulse or delusions which could, in the event of death, represent an abnormality of mind within the defense of diminished responsibility.

It has appeared in some high-profile cases in the United States. For example, in 1996, the Menendez brothers were found guilty of murdering their parents, despite their claim of being victims of sexual abuse. Similarly, Patty Hearst pleaded the Stockholm syndrome in her defense to robbery (cf the attempts of Steven Fishman and Lee Boyd Malvo to raise defenses based on mind control). Evidence of abuse is also relevant during the sentencing phase of a trial when lawyers will argue that culpability is reduced because behavior is influenced by early childhood experiences or more recent traumas. An interesting discussion of the use of this defense in both civil and criminal cases in the United States can be found in Harvard University law professor Alan Dershowitz's book "The Abuse Excuse: Cop-outs, Sob Stories, and Other Evasions of Responsibility", 1994, Little Brown & Co., ISBN 0-316-18135-8.

ee also

*Child abuse
*Diminished responsibility in English law
*Sex abuse
*Domestic violence and Spousal abuse
**Battered woman defence

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