The legal defense of necessity and psychological attribution of causality

Journal Title
Journal ISSN
Volume Title

The present study was an attempt to verify empirically the conceptual analysis of judicial decisions regarding the defense of necessity. Within this framework, the defense of necessity was seen as more viable having as a crucial and significant element attributions of situational determinants of behavior. In addition, the degree of situational determination was believed to be influenced by the disparity between the interests saved versus the interests lost. Further, the defense of necessity was seen as representing justified behavior (not guilty) only when the interests of the greater good were saved and as excusatory (guilty, but degree of blameworthiness reduced) when the actor1s own interests were saved. Finally, the presence of a judge's charge was believed to strengthen the distinction made by the law for justificatory defenses and excusatory pleas. The subjects consisted of a total of 160 student volunteers from undergraduate psychology classes at the University of Houston. The subjects were presented with a scenario (the experimental case) which was manipulated randomly to reflect one of four outcome disparity conditions and one of two conditions specifying whose interests were saved by the actor's behavior. Following presentation of the scenario, the subjects were asked to respond to three aspects concerning the nature of the case and the actor's conduct (experimental measure). The first section of the experimental measure asked that an attribution of situational versus personal causation be made concerning the actor's behavior. The second section asked that a legal decision be made with respect to guilt or innocence for the charge with which the actor was indicted. The third and final section was to be answered only if the actor were found guilty; the subject was to decide upon the degree of severity of sentence that he/she would pronounce for the actor. Half of the subjects were presented with a judge's charge prior to making the two legal judgments ("guilty - not guilty", severity of sentence). A replication case followed the "experimental measure" and subjects responded once again to the two legal judgments found on the "replication measure". The study successfully demonstrated that outcome disparity does relate to situational determination within the context of legal decision-making processes. In addition, the concept of situational determination as a significant component in the acceptance of the defense of necessity was further ratified. Further, it was found that all of these variables seemed to operate relatively independently and without much interaction. Locus of causality was found also to have been influential in affecting degree of excuse. Finally, the notion of whose interests were saved impacted significantly the acceptance of the defense of necessity. The failures to ratify the model dealt primarily with the nature of whose interests were saved in the differentiation between the types of the defense of necessity. In addition, the study found that the presence of a judge's charge failed also to effect a differentiation between Justification and excuse; rather, the presence of a charge seemed to sensitize the justificatory defense more so than the excusatory plea. The implications of the "ineffectiveness" of the judge's charge were discussed with respect to a possible blurring of the distinction and its effect in future case law on the conceptualization of the defense of necessity. Limitations and implications for further research were also discussed.