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I May Be a Murderer, But It's Not My Fault

ALAN DERSHOWITZ, the flamboyant Harvard law professor and criminal-defense lawyer who is an adviser to O.J. Simpson's legal team, is one of the last people you might expect to denounce creative defense tactics. But in a forthcoming book, the attorney who has defended the high (Leona Helmsley) and mighty (Mike Tyson) lambastes the growing assertion of new ``syndromes'' to justify violence.

In ``The Abuse Excuse: Cop-outs, Sob Stories and Other Evasions of Responsibility'' (Little, Brown), Professor Dershowitz writes that he is appalled by the outcomes in trials like that of Lorena Bobbitt, who maimed her husband as he lay sleeping, and of Erik and Lyle Menendez, who, after elaborate planning, shot their parents to death as they watched TV. A Virginia jury acquitted Mrs. Bobbitt after she testified that her spouse raped and beat her. Two juries in California deadlocked over the murder charges against the Menendez brothers owing to sketchy evidence that their overbearing father abused the young men.

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These trials are part of a rising tide of cases in which defense lawyers try to prove that clients charged with violence are really victims rather than perpetrators.

The best-known excuses are the battered-woman and abused-child syndromes used in the Bobbitt and Menendez cases, but Dershowitz lists at least 40 afflictions or circumstances that have been claimed to excuse criminal behavior - including adopted-child syndrome, black-rage syndrome, Holocaust-survivor syndrome, premenstrual-stress syndrome, Super Bowl Sunday syndrome, and urban-survival syndrome.

Dershowitz worries that current efforts to popularize many of these excuses will weaken traditional beliefs about personal responsibility, increase lawlessness by creating a license for vigilante violence, and ``undercut the credibility of legitimate defenses in appropriate cases.''

Few of these so-called syndromes meet the clinical definition of that term. Most have little support in medical or psychological research - they are just terms coined by lawyers and others with a legal or political agenda.

The abuse excuse most accepted by psychologists (and apparently by Dershowitz) is the battered-woman syndrome. One of its symptoms, ``learned helplessness,'' is used to explain why battered women often cannot leave an abusive relationship and come to see violence as their only escape. Massachusetts and some other states recognize battered-woman syndrome as a possible defense for women who kill or assault abusive partners.

(Many feminists support the recognition of battered-woman syndrome, but not all. In a recent law-review article, Vanderbilt Law School Prof. Anne Coughlin suggested that the syndrome further stereotypes women as weak and irrational people requiring special treatment under law. This could work against the advancement of women's legal rights in other areas, she argues.)

Some observers tie rising acceptance of the abuse excuse to the often bizarre discussions on TV daytime talk shows. A recent cover story in the American Bar Association Journal asked: Are jurors being softened to excuses by Phil Donahue, Oprah Winfrey, Sally Jessy Raphael, and other talk-show hosts?

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``In our popular culture today, it's chic to be a victim,'' says Charles Ewing, a law professor and psychologist at State University of New York at Buffalo.

But Professor Ewing, who has testified as an expert witness in support of battered-woman syndrome, says, ``I don't see a major movement toward juries' accepting abuse as an excuse for violence.'' He observes that, the Menendez case notwithstanding, most abused children who kill their parents are not acquitted. And most of the syndromes listed by Dershowitz have never been successfully advanced as legal defenses, Ewing says.

Still, Dershowitz argues that below the surface, abuse excuses are eating away at the integrity of the legal system. ``This trend is very dangerous and I want to stop it in its tracks,'' he said in an interview. He says judges should prohibit evidence about psychological conditions that are not scientifically proven.

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