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Mitigating Circumstances: Are They Explanations or Excuses?

For criminal defendants during their criminal proceedings, evidence is admitted throughout the case by both sides to prove (or disprove) the elements of the crime that they have been charged with. For example, homicide crimes require that the prosecution and defense put forward evidence to prove or disprove the mens rea and the actus reus, which refer to the intention behind the crime and the actual commission of the crime respectively.

The Elements of Proving a Crime: Mens Rea vs. Actus Reus

Mens rea means “guilty mind” and determines the extent to which the criminal defendant intended, with his/her action, to commit the crime to begin with. If, in a homicide case, the defendant did not mean to kill the victim and that is proven, then his/her sentence would be lesser than first degree murder, which provides that the defendant acted in a way to show that he/she had the intention to kill. Actus reus means in Latin the “guilty act,” which refers to the external actions of the criminal defendant. When attempting to win his/her case, the prosecution has to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the criminal defendant not only was responsible for the guilty act but had a guilty mind as well.

Aggravating and Mitigating Circumstances

Sometimes performing the guilty act with the guilty mind may not be the only aspect of the criminal proceeding to determine the criminal defendant’s sentence. After all the evidence has been put forward, both the prosecution and the defense may put forward evidence showing aggravating and mitigating circumstances that may lead to a more or less harsh sentence (respectively) for the criminal defendant. For example, the fact that the criminal defendant stabbed his victim 40 times might be an aggravating circumstance to show that he deserves a harsher sentence, or the fact that a criminal defendant was subject to abuse from his/ her victim for years before striking back might lead to a lighter sentence.

The reason behind aggravating and mitigating circumstances is to ensure that every individual is assessed not against all others who have committed the same crime, but in light of their own personal history and the circumstances surrounding the crime.

Mitigating Circumstances in Florida

In Florida, mitigating circumstances may be the following:

  • The defendant was an accomplice or performed a minor role in the criminal conduct;
  • The defendant’s capacity was at a level that he or she could not appreciate the criminal nature of his/her behavior;
  • The victim was an aggressor or initiator of the violence;
  • The defendant was acting under duress or out of necessity; and/or
  • The defendant was too young or immature to truly appreciate his/her actions, among others.

Excuse or Explanation?

There are, however, considerable controversies regarding, for example, mitigating circumstances and how juries under their purpose. For example, mitigating circumstances are defined by two opposing concepts: excuse and explanation. Though the two concepts seem similar, their slight differences can lead to difference results.


If mitigating circumstances are considered to be explanations, the evidence is offered to better understand why the defendant committed the act, evaluating the act in connection with external influences in the defendant’s life to find the defendant less culpable, and therefore, less deserving of punishment. For example, if the defendant acted as a result of his mental illness, the crime becomes lesser and therefore there is less to excuse, rather than less culpability.


Excuses are an attempt to avoid an otherwise deserved punishment by asking for leniency because of the external factors of the defendant’s life that led him/her to commit the crime. Where mitigating circumstances are understood as excuses, it implies that we all are starting from the same point of responsibility, but there are things that happened to this individual that make providing mercy an appealing idea, rather than asserting that he/she is less culpable.

Florida’s Interpretation is Highly Subjective

Florida law has yet to determine if one interpretation is better than another, and largely the decision to understand mitigating circumstances in light of explanation or excuse is a highly subjective interpretation made by the attorneys and the sitting judge.

Experienced Criminal Defense Attorney in Fort Lauderdale

If you have been charged with a crime where mitigating circumstances may help your case, it is important to speak with an experienced criminal defense attorney like Kevin J. Kulik who may best be able to guide you through the criminal process and advocate on your behalf. Contact Kevin J. Kulik today for a free and confidential consultation in the Fort Lauderdale area.

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