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The Double-Edge Sword: 3 Mitigating Circumstances That Can Turn Aggravating

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Mitigating circumstances are frequently used in criminal cases to help reduce punishment once the defendant has been found or pleaded guilty. An effective mitigation defense can reduce the amount of time a defendant is incarcerated or, in some cases, can mean the difference between life and death. Although several issues can be used for mitigation, they are not always effective and can increase perceived dangerousness and culpability.

Mental Illness

The public often erroneously believes the issue of mental illness is frequently used as an "excuse" for criminal behavior. Unless the defendant is declared insane, they must stand trial for their accused crime. Mental illness may be entered as a mitigating defense to reduce culpability for criminal behavior, but this is not always effective. One of the problems with using mental illness as a mitigating circumstance is that a jury may not necessarily feel any sympathy for the accused and view them as being more of a danger than if they did not have a mental illness.

Some defendants have a long-standing history of mental illness and they may be treatment-resistant or frequently discontinue prescribed treatments. In the case of a violent crime, the defendant can easily be considered an ongoing threat to society, both because the mental illness cannot be cured and/or they will not stay on their medication. Since it has been widely publicized that mental health services may not be routinely accessible, especially for those of lower income brackets or those uninsured, a history of family members trying to find help for the defendant with little or no results could potentially negate some of the negative perceptions of mental illness.

Drug Addiction

Drug addiction is another mitigating circumstance that is often not viewed favorably by juries, especially if the defendant has a lengthy criminal history. If there is a history of the defendant participating in drug treatment programs and relapsing or abandoning the program, this likely will not be helpful in their mitigating defense. There is little expectation the defendant would participate in any drug treatment programs and stay clean, possibly returning to the same behaviors that led to the current criminal complaints.

In cases where the defendant may have been using a substance that is known to contribute to paranoid behavior or psychosis, which could have precipitated a violent crime, jurors may be less sympathetic for their mitigation defense than they would be if mental illness alone were the contributing factor. Since mental illness is typically viewed as an issue beyond the control of the defendant, drug abuse may be viewed as a factor that is more controllable and harder to treat, therefore less deserving of leniency.

Anger Management

In some cases, a lawyer might argue the defendant is not a bad person, but that they simply lost their temper, or a lawyer might present other evidence of anger management issues. Unfortunately, arguing a loss of control may work if the goal is to emphasize lack of premeditation, but otherwise, this can make the defendant sound intimidating. Generally, people with anger management problems are viewed as reckless and impulsive. A person who might "snap" with little to no provocation can easily be perceived as an ongoing threat, both in society and while incarcerated.

If the defendant is relatively young, arguing immaturity may be received better since immaturity is a more relatable concept and makes the defendant seem less scary. For older defendants who would not benefit from the argument of immaturity, having no prior evidence of impulsive behavior or violence would likely be the only way to convince a jury the current case was a one-time occurrence and not evidence of a behavioral flaw.

Mitigating circumstances are often a hurdle in criminal cases because the same issues can be perceived as an aggravating factor to jurors. Viewing any mitigating factor in multiple ways can help you determine whether it will help or hurt the punishment phase.

For more information, get in touch with a firm such as Johnson Motinger Greenwood Law Firm.