Defenses to Criminal Actions
The criminal law admits of several defenses to criminal actions that defendants can avail themselves of to get rid of liability. While some of these defenses serve as complete defenses to acquit the defendants from any criminal charges, other defenses are incomplete defenses that are effective to absolve criminal defendants of some crimes. Three of the legitimate defenses to criminal offenses are defense of insanity, defense of mistake of fact, and self-defense.
Insanity defense is largely used in criminal trials. The rationale of the insanity defense proposes the defendants being suffering from severe mental illness at the time of the crime and thus incompetent to differentiate between right and wrong behavior making them legally immune from criminal charges. However, insanity defense is a legal guard and not a clinical justification necessitating the responsibility of establishing the argument of insanity by a “preponderance of the evidence” on the part of the defendant, quite similar to a civil case (Math, Kumar & Moirangthem, 2015). The insanity defense and the incompetency status are the indispensable parts of the American criminal justice system with only a few states prohibiting the insanity defense on the grounds of mens rea exception (LeBlanc, 2006). Interestingly, critics are discontented with the abolitionist approach to insanity defense. Empirical research has revealed nine different myths surrounding insanity defense that have been empirically refuted.
Article 14 ensures the liberty and security of persons with mental disabilities or psychosocial disabilities. This is the cornerstone of the Convention on the rights of persons with disabilities (CRPD). Nevertheless, the legal system is apprehensive of the adequacy of mens rea evidence for isolating criminally liable actions and isolating actions deemed not guilty due to insanity (Katz, 1963). Perlin (1989) argued that the abolitionist perspective is lacking in intellectual reasoning. He noted that the abolition trend was supported by the “common wisdom” urging the insanity defense as a misused pretext to avoid death penalty presupposing “most successful pleaders are not truly mentally ill; that most acquittals follow sharply contested ‘battles of the experts’; and that most successful pleaders are sent for short stays to civil hospitals” (Perlin, 1989, p. 707). Yet, the moral basis of insanity defense should not be ignored.
Mistake of fact is a defense that hinges on the mode of culpability to be eligible as a crime. The Model Penal Code (MPC) adopted by the American Law Institute in 1962 states that a mistake is considered a defense provided the defendant did not have the required criminal liability regarding the element of the crime (Clark & Ansay, 2002). Ignorance or mistake of fact affords the defendant an adequate excuse concerning criminal actions. Although American courts have recognized the defense yet mistake of fact will not be treated as a defense to a general-intent crime provided the mistake is adequately reasonable one for the defendant to commit in the scenario.
A mistake of fact functions to negate the mental element of an offense. It is not essentially a defensive mechanism to demonstrate the failure of the prosecution’s evidence of the element of offense rather the defense of fact reinstates the prosecution’s obligation to prove the mental intent of the offense (Cavallaro, 1995). In the analysis of the mistake of fact, identifying the elements of the criminal action is the primary focus. In the event of the mistake of fact negating the indispensable element of offense, the defendant is guarded with the defense. If a defendant lacks particular knowledge or information that a particular thing does not belong to him and he takes away the thing, the defendant can get the defense of mistake of fact because it negates the particular element of the larceny as larceny requires that the offender takes away the property of another (Bacigal & Tate, 2014). However, the defendant can be prosecuted in those jurisdictions where attempted larceny provisions are available. Besides, negligence in making mistake could be a sufficient mode of culpability.
Self-defense is the least controversial defense and is generally permissible with respect to cases. However, the issue of self-defense varies from one jurisdiction to another and in near self-defense cases, the question of criminal liability is often problematic. In near self-defense cases, the legal claim of self-defense remains unsettled due to the non-fulfilment of some legal prerequisites for the defense (Finkelstein, 1995). However, near self-defense cases are different from imperfect self-defense that defines imperfect self-defense as killing with unreasonable belief that factual circumstances justify killing (Dressler & Strong & Moritz, 2001). The commonly held rationale for self-defense is justification contrary to an excuse in criminal law perspective.
The central legal requirement for self-defense is defense’s nature or defensive force. The necessity requirement classifies justified from tolerated or excused, employing defensive force as a right (Fletcher, 1995). It can be argued that actual necessity should be a requirement of justification but actual necessity is never a requirement for justification because legal commentators have agreed on dispensing with the actual necessity for justification of self-defense (Greenawalt, 1984). In fact, the MPC allows actors to benefit from the justification defense. The American law requires defendant’s reasonable belief as sufficient in the necessity to use defensive force. Another excuse for self-defense is the battered woman syndrome drawn on Lenore Walker's work in experimental psychology which contends a psychological syndrome specific to victims of domestic abuse suggesting a special defense on behalf of battered women who kill their abusers lacking culpability for their conduct (Walker, 1984). The legal meaningfulness of the syndrome is confusing since if it means incapacity and lacking voluntariness, it is similar to an insane actor with no mens rea. It follows that the possibility of syndrome itself appears as the defense so that impairment does not entail complete loss of agency despite clouding the agent’s responsibility for her conduct (Finkelstein, 1995). Self-defense uses a kind of motivation in support of defense. Hence, killing in self-defense can be justified for the motive of self-preservation according to the welfarist conception of justification. Self-defense, in the last resort, can be regarded as a rational excuse involving the agent’s reasoning to protect her as the most necessary act.
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Cavallaro, R. (1995). A Big Mistake: Eroding the defense of mistake of fact about consent in rape. J. Crim. L. & Criminology, 86, 815.
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Dressler, J., Strong, F. R., & Moritz, M. E. (2001). Understanding criminal law.
Finkelstein, C. O. (1995). Self-defense as a rational excuse. U. Pitt. L. Rev., 57, 621.
Fletcher, G. P. (1995). Domination in the Theory of Justification and Excuse. U. Pitt. L. Rev., 57, 553.
Greenawalt, K. (1984). The perplexing borders of justification and excuse. Columbia Law Review, 84(8), 1897-1927.
Katz, J. (1963). Abolish the" Insanity Defense"-Why Not?.
LeBlanc, S. M. (2006). Cruelty to the mentally ill: An Eighth Amendment challenge to the abolition of the insanity defense. Am. UL Rev., 56, 1281.
Math, S. B., Kumar, C. N., & Moirangthem, S. (2015). Insanity defense: Past, present, and future. Indian journal of psychological medicine, 37(4), 381.
Perlin, M. L. (1989). Unpacking the myths: The symbolism mythology of insanity defense jurisprudence. Case W. Res. L. Rev., 40, 599.
Walker, L. E. (1984). Battered Woman Syndrome.
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