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Mitigating Circumstances


Circumstances that may be considered by a court in determining culpability of a defendant or the extent of damages to be awarded to a plaintiff. Mitigating circumstances do not justify or excuse an offense but may reduce the severity of a charge. Similarly, a recognition of mitigating circumstances to reduce a damage award does not imply that the damages were not suffered but that they have been partially ameliorated.

In criminal cases where the death penalty may be imposed, the Supreme Court has held that, under the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments, juries must be instructed that they may consider mitigating circumstances such as the defendant's youth, mental capacity, or childhood abuse so that they may reach a reasoned and moral sentencing decision. (See Penry v. Lynaugh, 492 U.S. 302, 109 S. Ct. 2934, 106 L. Ed. 2d 256 [1989].) Mitigating circumstances may be used to reduce a charge against a defendant. In People v. Morrin, 31 Mich. App. 301, 187 N.W.2d 434 (1971), the Michigan Court of Appeals reversed and remanded Morrin's conviction on first-degree murder charges because he committed the murder in the heat of passion caused by adequate legal provocation. The court found that because of these mitigating circumstances, the evidence was insufficient to support a first-degree murder conviction, which requires malice aforethought.

In civil actions mitigating circumstances may be considered to reduce damage awards or the extent of the defendant's liability. In Cerretti v. Flint Hills Rural Electric Cooperative Ass'n, 251 Kan. 347, 837 P.2d 330 (1992), the Supreme Court of Kansas held that a court, in reviewing a damage award, may consider any mitigating circumstances that affected the intent of the defendant, the financial worth of the defendant, or the plaintiff's expenses.

Many states allow defendants in defamation actions to prove mitigating circumstances by showing that they acted in good faith, with honesty of purpose, and without malice in speaking or publishing the defamatory words. If the court is convinced that legitimate mitigating circumstances existed, it may reduce the amount of damages the defendant is required to pay. In Roemer v. Retail Credit Co., 44 Cal. App. 3d 926, 119 Cal. Rptr. 82 (1975), the defendant claimed that the plaintiff defaced the wall of his office, thereby mitigating the defendant's liability for defamatory statements. However, the court did not allow the defendant to introduce this evidence because he could not prove that the plaintiff was responsible for the defacement.


Capital Punishment; Criminal Law.

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