Murder and the Reasonable Man: Passion and Fear in the Criminal Courtroom

Murder and the Reasonable Man: Passion and Fear in the Criminal Courtroom

Murder and the Reasonable Man: Passion and Fear in the Criminal Courtroom

Murder and the Reasonable Man: Passion and Fear in the Criminal Courtroom


A man murders his wife after she has admitted her infidelity; another man kills an openly gay teammate after receiving a massage; a third man, white, goes for a jog in a "bad" neighborhood, carrying a pistol, and shoots an African American teenager who had his hands in his pockets. When brought before the criminal justice system, all three men argue that they should be found "not guilty"; the first two use the defense of provocation, while the third argues he used his gun in self-defense.

Drawing upon these and similar cases, Cynthia Lee shows how two well-established, traditional criminal law defenses- the doctrines of provocation and self-defense- enable majority-culture defendants to justify their acts of violence. While the reasonableness requirement, inherent in both defenses, is designed to allow community input and provide greater flexibility in legal decision-making, the requirement also allows majority-culture defendants to rely on dominant social norms, such as masculinity, heterosexuality, and race (i.e., racial stereotypes), to bolster their claims of reasonableness. At the same time, Lee examines other cases that demonstrate that the reasonableness requirement tends to exclude the perspectives of minorities, such as heterosexual women, gays and lesbians, and persons of color.

Murder and the Reasonable Man not only shows how largely invisible social norms and beliefs influence the outcomes of certain criminal cases, but goes further, suggesting three tentative legal reforms to address problems of bias and undue leniency. Ultimately, Lee cautions that the true solution lies in a change in social attitudes.


John, a mechanical engineer, finds out that Veronica, his wife of seven
years, is having an affair with his best friend. Tormented by images of his
wife and his best friend together, John alternates between wanting to shoot
himself and wanting to shoot the two of them. Finally, he confronts his
wife, tells her he knows she has been unfaithful, and asks what drove her
to betray him. Veronica admits she has been unfaithful. She apologizes, but
John isn't satisfied. He demands to know why she has done this to him. She
tells him that she no longer loves him. In disbelief, John grabs his wife and
tries to kiss her. Veronica pushes him away, choking as if she can't stand the
way he smells. At this, something in John snaps. John wraps his hands
around his wife's throat, like a wedding band that fits snugly around the
ring finger. His hurt pours out of his heart into his hands until Veronica lies
lifeless before him.


Mike, an honors student at the local junior college, plays quarterback on the
football team. Good-looking and well-liked by his classmates, Mike prides
himself on being an all-American guy. One day, Mike takes a hard fall on his
shoulder during football training. After practice, Mike decides to relax in
the school's sauna where he finds his friend and fellow teammate Gary.
Gary asks him about his shoulder. Mike tells him that it's pretty sore. Gary
who is openly gay, asks if Mike wants him to massage his shoulder. Mike
says that would be great. Mike, clad only in a short white towel, lies face
down on a nearby bench. Gary starts to massage Mike's shoulders and back.
Mike tries to muffle a groan of pleasure. The massage feels good, almost too . . .

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