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Moral Judgement: Does the Abuse Excuse Threaten Our Legal System?

James Q. Wilson, a professor of management and public policy at UCLA, begins his book with this premise: If a sense of right and wrong is innate to every sane human being, how can we clog our court systems with cases that turn on mitigating and extenuating circumstances? Citing the Menendez, Goetz and other famous cases to illustrate his points, he argues that while the goal of the legal process is and should be to judge the behavior of the defendant, it has dramatically given way to explaining that behavior. Therefore, the essential ideas of personal responsibility have been weakened.

Examining why people are today held less accountable for their actions, Wilson believes that criminal trials, especially those involving murders, have been hamstrung by the introduction of a range of implausible excuses. These excuses range from the Twinkie Defense, a claim of impaired judgment due to the toxic effects of junk food, to claims of psychosexual abuse, to the abuse excuse - that a woman may castrate or shoot a brutal husband even though he is asleep. Wilson argues that these excuses have no place in the courts. The law deals with whether an action is right or wrong, guilt or innocence - and should not concern itself with issues of blameability or excuseability.

Furthermore, Wilson illustrates that there has been an explosion of so-called expert testimony which has made it easier for attorneys to enlist their own advocates. Wilson states, "There is no lawyer worth his hire who cannot find an expert to testify in a way that will help his client even though the opposing lawyer had his own expert testifying with equal assurance on the other side."

In order to improve our legal system, Wilson offers many suggestions for reform. To curb the abuses created by partisan experts, he calls for the banning of psychiatric and social science experts altogether. He recommends that judges select experts and the state pay for them. Also judges rather than lawyers should choose juries.
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Author:Levinson, Martin H.
Publication:ETC.: A Review of General Semantics
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1998
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