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Excuse: Duress - The Mistaken Defendant

unreasonable defense killed charged

What if the defendant is mistaken in thinking he is being threatened? Suppose he misunderstood; suppose he mistakenly read menacing implications into an adversary's genuinely innocent remark that "he hoped he would have a long and healthy life." If his mistake is reasonable, he is probably still entitled to claim the defense. A reasonable misunderstanding is generally deemed deserving of protection. But what if he was unreasonable? What if a reasonable person would not have dreamed of reading a threat into such innocuous language? Some jurisdictions would then automatically deny him the defense. Others take a more refined approach. They allow the defendant to invoke the defense if he is charged with intentional wrongdoing, but not if he is merely charged with an offense involving unreasonable risk-taking. So, for instance, if someone commits a murder under the unreasonable misimpression that he will be killed unless he does so, he would still be entitled to plead duress. But suppose he is merely charged with manslaughter (which is usually understood to refer to reckless killings); he would then not be able to invoke the defense. That makes good sense: when he intentionally killed someone under the unreasonable misimpression that if he did not do so he would himself be killed, he committed the equivalent of an unexcused, reckless killing.

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