Section 2.5


Fundamentals of Criminal Law

Adam J. McKee, Ph.D.

Jack Brown, Ph.D.


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Excuse Defenses

An act that is ordinarily subject to a criminal penalty is considered to be justified and carries no criminal liability when it preserves an important value and benefits society. Self-defense, for instance, protects human life against wrongdoers. Excuses, in contrast, provide a defense based on the fact that although a defendant committed a criminal act, he or she is not considered responsible. In an excuse defense, the defendant claims that the act was wrong, but he or she is not morally blameworthy. This is illustrated by legal insanity that excuses criminal liability based on a mental disease or defect.

Individuals are also excused due to youth or intoxication or in those instances when they lack a criminal intent as a result of a mental disease or defect. Defendants are further excused in those instances when they commit a criminal act in response to a threat of imminent harm or a mistake of fact or are manipulated and entrapped into criminal conduct. Excuses are very different from one another and each requires separate study. The common denominator of excuses is that the defendants are not morally blameworthy and therefore are excused from criminal liability.

Excuse defenses are based on the theory that criminal defendants sometimes do not have a legitimate choice when it comes to formulating the criminal intent element of crimes.  If such an assertion can be proven in court, then the defendant’s conduct can be excused. The lack of choice can be caused by several types of circumstances. Some defenses revolve around the idea of a mistake.  When a defendant had a mistaken belief about some important fact in the case, the legal system is reluctant to punish the offender if the criminal action would not have been liable to a prosecution if circumstances were as the defendant believed them to be.

Similarly, we are willing to excuse conduct that is brought on by a mental disease or defect sufficient to remove the defendant’s ability to make a rational choice.  Still other excuse defenses are based on the idea that the will to commit the criminal act was not the defendant’s, but rather someone exerting an undue influence on the defendant.   For each of the defenses discussed below, ask yourself what it is about the circumstances contemplated by the defense that diminishes the defendant’s criminal intent.

Modification History

File Created:  07/17/2018

Last Modified:  07/17/2018

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This work is licensed under an Open Educational Resource-Quality Master Source (OER-QMS) License.

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