"Abuse Excuse" In Court Wearing Thin, UB Law Professor Says

By Mary Beth Spina

Release Date: September 1, 1994 This content is archived.


BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Attorneys' use of the "abuse excuse" and insanity defenses claiming circumstances beyond their clients' control for their sometimes violent criminal acts is beginning to wear thin with an increasingly skeptical public, a University at Buffalo law professor says.

"Because these defenses are arising more often in highly publicized cases of murder and those involving extreme violence, there seems to be growing sentiment that defendants should be punished irregardless of their mental state at the time of the crime," observes Charles Carr, who teaches criminal procedure in the UB School of Law.

Callers to talk radio and television programs and "person on the street" interviews suggest an increasingly leery public is viewing these defense attempts as a sort of legal "loophole," Carr says.

"These defense attempts are poorly understood by much of the public," he says, "as more defendants claim diminished mental capacity for their actions based on anything from overeating sugary foods to being affected in utero by medications taken by their mothers when pregnant."

While there are medical criteria for certain diagnoses of mental disorders, there is also a legal definition of insanity.

"A defendant could be quite ill but still held legally responsible for his or her acts," the UB professor notes.

The definition for legal insanity may vary from state to state.

In New York, for instance, a legal test for insanity asks whether, at the time of the illegal act, the defendant lacked responsibility by reason of mental disease or defect.

The jury is instructed to decide if, at the time of the conduct in question, the defendant had the "substantial capacity to know or appreciate either the nature and consequences of the conduct or that the conduct was wrong."

Generally, the prosecution bears the burden of proving each and every element of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt.

"This is true, even where the defense has raised an 'abuse excuse' or insanity," Carr explains. "Because the defense has raised what is called an affirmative defense, it will be required to prove the alleged mental infirmity by a preponderance of the evidence in that issue."

A defendant may be found legally insane and as a result, be guilty of a lesser crime. For instance, manslaughter instead of murder.

The difference would be that, for a murder conviction, proof is required of intent to kill, which the defendant might not have had because of some mental disease or defect.

"It's also possible the defendant could be acquitted by reason of insanity and would have to be treated and/or committed until he was judged to be 'sane'," Carr points out.

It is only because the defendant has raised an affirmative defense -- insanity -- that the defense bears any burden at all.

"Those who believe the 'abuse excuse' and insanity defenses cannot or should not be valid defenses ignore the need in the criminal justice system to base the decision to punish on broad social goals and not just individual retribution," he emphasizes.

It defies logic, common sense and empirical data to believe punishing an individual who is insane at the time of the crime serves social protection goals of deterrence or rehabilitation, he says.

"When we base punishment on retribution alone and ignore the defendant's mental state, the damage is greater to us as a society than when we acknowledge the right to plead 'not guilty' based on a claim of insanity or extreme abuse of some kind," Carr adds.