MORAL JUDGMENT by James Q. Wilson


Does the Abuse Excuse Threaten Our Legal System?
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 A leading social scientist blasts the use of social science in the courtroom, in this provocative but cranky collection of lectures delivered at Harvard. Contrary to the implications of the subtitle, Wilson (Management and Public Policy/UCLA; The Moral Sense, 1993, etc.) does not directly take on Alan Dershowitz's The Abuse Excuse (1994), a well-hyped diatribe against state-of-the-art criminal defenses such as drug addiction, black rage, PMS, and Twinkie-binging. Wilson summarily dismisses the notion that an ``avalanche'' of novel pseudo-excuses regularly results in unfair acquittals in homicide trials; the real problem, he counters, is that the job of juries has been compromised by the introduction of needlessly complicated court-made concepts (e.g., ``imperfect self-defense,'' ``premeditation,'' ``diminished capacity,'') and scientifically dubious expert testimony as to such questionable conditions as ``battered women's syndrome.'' According to Wilson, justice would be better served in homicide trials if juries could merely rely on their collective common sense to answer a short list of ``simple'' questions: Did the killing occur in self-defense? If not, was the killer insane? If the killing was intended, was the killer unreasonably provoked? Along with banishing many legal doctrines and most experts, Wilson advocates judge-run voir dires without peremptory challenges by either prosecution or defense, a more active role for judges during trials, and a ``more constrained'' appellate process. In the wake of the Simpson and Menendez trials, many would agree with such reforms, but what makes Wilson seem extremist is his intolerance for the kind of evidence that the defense customarily introduces to excuse or mitigate guilt. Was the defendant intoxicated when he committed the crime? He should've just said no. Was the homicidal wife a battered woman? ``Most of us object'' to the ``stereotype,'' Wilson weirdly declares; even if it's accurate, jurors shouldn't favor such a defendant merely on grounds of ``likability.'' Wilson's sanctimonious calls for ``individual accountability'' and his impatience with human failings fatally detract from some sensible suggestions for legal reform.

Pub Date: May 7th, 1997
ISBN: 0-465-03624-4
Page count: 144pp
Publisher: Basic
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15th, 1997


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