The Abuse Excuse

In his argument supporting the existence and prevalence of the "Abuse Excuse", Mr. Dershowitz likens it to a "modern-day form of vigilantism" where the victim has "returned to a 'state of nature' in which 'might makes right'. " He goes on to say, in a somewhat alarmist tone (though rightly justified), that this newly-forged vigilantism, taking the law into one's own hands, "threatens the very fabric of our democracy and sows the seeds of anarchy and autocracy.

The abuse excuse is dangerous, therefore, both in its narrow manifestation as a legal defense and in its broader manifestation as anabrogation of societal responsibility. " He also makes reference to the marketability of many of these topics vis-vis the media, namely the sensational format of many daytime talk shows where the syndrome du jour is bantered over with the fervor and intelligence of a crowd watching a boxing match. In many respects I agree with his assertions that juries often fall victim to a staged and somewhat distorted version of reality through either theatrics or subliminal manipulation of their emotions.

Unfortunately a conviction, especially a life or death sentence, should be based on immutable evidence and facts and not conditional feelings vicariously experienced from a sympathetic juror. He points out that the law does in fact take into account the defendants' actus reas and mens reas. Considering the act itself (such as a mutilation in the Lorena Bobbit case) and the state of mind one finds oneself in (however dysfunctional or psychotic), the law does provide for defenses such as "official justification", "self-defense" and "insanity.

" The unflattering reality in any court case is the simple fact that both sides want to win, and will try (within reason) any way to do so. This may include tactics that involve, as Mr. Dershowitz puts it, employing "junk science" to present a case, or worse, an abuse of the vigilante position; one that "places the victim-who is usually dead and incapable of defending himself-on trial. " The Menendez Brothers case was a prime example of this, invoking a "he had it coming" response from the jury. In essence, I agree with Mr. Dershowitz.

One point of contention I did have however, involved including such "syndromes" as Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, Posttraumatic Stress Disorder and Premenstrual Stress Syndrome in his laundry list of excuses. The two latter are carefully and painstakingly outlined in the DSM-IV with very stringent criteria for diagnosis. Also, the former, FAS, has both genetic and biological components (some races such as African-Americans, Apache and Ute Indians are at greater risk for having children with this problem, lacking or being deficient in the enzyme alcohol dehydrogenase that is involved in the metabolism of alcohol.)

This syndrome is truly heartbreaking, with innocent victims: the children born to mothers who drank while pregnant suffer not only from retardation and cognitive difficulties, but also exhibit physical characteristics that may further stigmatize and alienate a child. Besides this erroneous lumping together of many un-related "syndromes" or excuses, I tend to agree with his basic premise of "deflecting responsibility from the person who committed the act onto someone else who may have abused him or her or otherwise caused him to do it. "