Define: Abuse Excuse

Abuse Excuse
Abuse Excuse
Quick Summary of Abuse Excuse

The “abuse excuse” is a colloquial term used to describe a defence strategy in criminal cases where the accused claims that their actions were the result of past abuse or trauma, typically involving physical, emotional, or psychological mistreatment. This defence argues that the defendant’s experiences of abuse influenced their behaviour and impaired their ability to control their actions or understand the consequences of their conduct. Supporters of the abuse excuse argue that it provides context for the defendant’s actions and highlights the need for understanding and rehabilitation rather than solely punishment. However, critics contend that the abuse excuse can be misused or overused as a justification for criminal behaviour and may undermine accountability for one’s actions. Courts evaluate the validity of the abuse excuse defence on a case-by-case basis, considering factors such as the nature and extent of the abuse, the defendant’s mental state, and the connection between the abuse and the alleged criminal conduct.

Full Definition Of Abuse Excuse

Description of efforts by some criminal defendants to negate criminal responsibility by showing that they could not tell right from wrong due to abuse by their spouses or parents. Although this defence is not specifically recognised in substantive criminal law, it has been used successfully in some cases to prove, for example, the insanity defence.

Using prior sexual or other physical abuse as evidence in a criminal defence is largely a result of research regarding mental disorders caused by such abuse. Psychologists and other researchers have identified disorders, including post-traumatic stress disorder and battered woman syndrome, as causes for severe emotional instability that can lead to violent acts by the victim against his or her abuser. Some writers have advocated more widespread use of such evidence to mitigate the punishment of victims who commit violent acts.

Other scholars and writers disagree, noting that substantive criminal law does not recognise the abuse excuse as a legitimate defence except in some limited circumstances, such as those involving the insanity defence. Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz coined the term in his 1994 book, The Abuse Excuse, where he deems the studies regarding psychological disorders caused by abuse “psychobabble.” Dershowitz and other critics disagree not only with the use of abuse as mitigating evidence of criminal intent, but also with the results of the studies themselves. According to these critics, especially Dershowitz, the abuse excuse fails to distinguish between the reasons why a person committed a crime and the responsibility for committing the crime.

In a few high-profile cases during the late 1980s and 1990s, defendants sought to avoid criminal responsibility for their crimes by introducing evidence of prior abuse. In 1989, Lyle and Erik Menendez, ages 21 and 18, respectively, brutally killed their parents in the family’s California home. At their first trial for murder in 1993, the brothers’ defence team introduced evidence that the men’s father, Jose Menendez, had sexually abused his sons for a number of years. Because of this abuse, Lyle and Eric, according to the defence, killed their parents out of fear. In raising the evidence of abuse, the defence sought to reduce the conviction from murder to voluntary manslaughter. The defence won a victory of sorts when the first trial ended in a hung jury because the jurors could not agree whether the brothers were killers or whether they acted out due to the years of alleged abuse they had suffered. In a second trial in 1995, however, the jury convicted the brothers of first-degree murder, notwithstanding the evidence of abuse, and the judge sentenced them to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

In 1993, Lorena Bobbitt was indicted for malicious wounding after cutting off her sleeping husband’s penis during the middle of the night. At her trial, her defence team introduced evidence of a history of sexual and physical abuse committed by her husband, John, against Lorena. Unlike the Menendez case, where the defence conceded that the brothers were criminally responsible for their actions, Lorena’s defence team used the evidence to prove the insanity defence. In 1994, a jury found her not guilty of the crime by reason of insanity.

Scholars have noted that the employment of the abuse excuse as a defence is more viable if it is used to prove insanity, which happened in the Lorena Bobbitt case. Commentators have also noted that evidence of prior abuse, whether substantiated or not, has been used in settings other than criminal defence. For instance, a wife may accuse a husband of sexual abuse during divorce proceedings, or an adult woman may sue her father for sexual abuse that allegedly occurred when the woman was a child.

Abuse Excuse FAQ'S

The abuse excuse is a term used to describe the defence strategy in which an individual accused of a crime claims that their abusive or traumatic experiences in the past influenced their behaviour and should be considered as mitigating circumstances.

In legal cases, the abuse excuse defence involves presenting evidence of past abuse or trauma to argue that the accused’s actions were a result of their experiences and should be viewed with leniency or understanding by the court.

Common types of abuse cited in the abuse excuse defence include physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional or psychological abuse, neglect, and other forms of trauma experienced during childhood or adulthood.

The validity of the abuse excuse defence depends on the specific circumstances of each case and the laws of the jurisdiction. While past abuse or trauma may be considered as mitigating factors in sentencing, it may not absolve the accused of criminal responsibility altogether.

When evaluating the abuse excuse defence, courts consider factors such as the severity and duration of the abuse, the impact on the individual’s mental health and decision-making capacity, the causal link between the abuse and the alleged criminal behaviour, and any evidence of rehabilitation or remorse.

The abuse excuse defence may be more commonly used in cases involving crimes such as assault, domestic violence, drug offenses, and certain homicides where there is a clear link between the accused’s past trauma and their behaviour. However, its applicability may vary depending on the jurisdiction and the specific circumstances of each case.

If the abuse excuse defence is successful, it may lead to a reduction in sentencing or a more lenient outcome, such as probation, counselling, or rehabilitation programs, instead of incarceration. However, the extent of the impact depends on various factors, including the severity of the offense and the court’s discretion.

Critics of the abuse excuse defence argue that it may be used to minimise or excuse criminal behaviour, undermine accountability, and perpetuate harmful stereotypes about victims of abuse. They also highlight concerns about the potential manipulation or fabrication of abuse claims to evade responsibility.

The abuse excuse defence may have implications for victims of abuse, as it can shape public perceptions of their experiences, credibility, and rights. Some victims may feel re-traumatised or invalidated by the portrayal of their abuser as a sympathetic figure in the legal process.

Instead of relying solely on the abuse excuse defence, individuals facing criminal charges may explore other legal strategies, such as pleading guilty, negotiating plea bargains, presenting evidence of mitigating factors, or pursuing alternative sentencing options tailored to address underlying issues such as substance abuse or mental health disorders.


This site contains general legal information but does not constitute professional legal advice for your particular situation. Persuing this glossary does not create an attorney-client or legal adviser relationship. If you have specific questions, please consult a qualified attorney licensed in your jurisdiction.

This glossary post was last updated: 10th April 2024.

Cite Term

To help you cite our definitions in your bibliography, here is the proper citation layout for the three major formatting styles, with all of the relevant information filled in.

  • Page URL:
  • Modern Language Association (MLA):Abuse Excuse. DLS Solicitors. May 20 2024
  • Chicago Manual of Style (CMS):Abuse Excuse. DLS Solicitors. (accessed: May 20 2024).
  • American Psychological Association (APA):Abuse Excuse. Retrieved May 20 2024, from website:
Avatar of DLS Solicitors
DLS Solicitors : Divorce Solicitors

Our team of professionals are based in Alderley Edge, Cheshire. We offer clear, specialist legal advice in all matters relating to Family Law, Wills, Trusts, Probate, Lasting Power of Attorney and Court of Protection.

All author posts