If you asked the average person on the street if someone should be convicted for murder when they were forced to do it, you might get a variety of answers. It’s a tough question, and one that has been asked within the confines of the justice system for quite some time.
A case in Illinois highlights that this question still has no clear answer. A woman who was convicted of the 1988 kidnapping and murder of a man claims that she was forced to do so as a victim of domestic violence.
She got life in prison for her crimes, but an appeals court has now given her an opportunity to challenge her sentence. It’s based on her claims that her boyfriend threatened to kill her if she didn’t help carry out the crimes.
In the legal community, this is called “duress”. Is it a good defense for murder?
What Is Domestic Violence in Illinois?
In Illinois, the following actions are defined as domestic violence when perpetrated against a member of your family or household:
- Sexual abuse
- Physical force
- Forced and unnecessary sleep deprivation
- Behavior that produces the risk of immediate physical harm
- Interference with personal liberty
- Willful deprivation
The penalties for domestic violence crimes, which can range from Class A misdemeanors to Class 4 felonies, include anywhere from one year or up to three years in jail and fines of as much as $25,000.
In some cases, a Class 3 felony can be charged if there are at least three prior domestic violence convictions in a person’s criminal history. Class 3 felonies are punishable by as many as five years behind bars and fines of $25,000.
Can Domestic Violence Be a Defense Against Murder?
If someone is a victim of domestic violence, the case could be made that they were under duress when they committed a crime, even one as serious as murder.
Duress is used in defenses when there is a threat of or the actual use of physical force that could drive the person accused, or any reasonable person, to commit the crime.
However, a person simply cannot throw duress out as a defense against serious crimes. It must be established that the elements of duress were present. These elements include:
- A threat of immediate serious bodily injury or death
- A well-grounded fear that the threat could really occur
- There is no reasonable way to escape unless the unlawful act is committed
Limitations do exist under the law when it comes to duress, including for charges of murder. The law does not allow someone who committed murder to use duress as a defense, and it also isn’t allowed if someone placed themselves in a dangerous situation in the first place through their own recklessness or negligence.
There is also a defense called necessity. Much like the defense of duress, it involves harm or threat of harm to force another person to act unlawfully. Necessity is seen by the courts as a choice between two evils. If a person is put in a situation where they must break the law in order to prevent harm to themselves, then necessity can be used as a defense.
The 1988 murder case will be interesting to watch unfold. After all, the law changes and evolves over time. Perhaps this time, domestic violence and the threat of harm may be enough to have a convicted murder’s sentence reduced.
About the Author
Sami Azhari has been working as a lawyer since 2007, after receiving his Juris Doctor from the Michigan State University College of Law. He has handled numerous state and federal cases, and is known throughout the Chicago and Rolling Meadows area for providing his clients with high-quality, skilled representation. He has been recognized by Avvo (2013 and 2018), SuperLawyers (2015-2020), The National Trial Lawyers, and other notable organizations, and has spoken at a number of legal conferences.