Friday, April 24, 2015
It is common wisdom that the provocation defense is, quite simply, sexist. For decades, there has been a trenchant feminist critique that the doctrine reflects and reinforces masculine norms of violence and shelters brutal domestic killers. The critique is so prominent that it appears alongside the doctrine itself in leading criminal law casebooks. The feminist critique of provocation embodies several claims about provocation’s problematically gendered nature, including that the defense is steeped in chauvinist history, treats culpable sexist killers too leniently, discriminates against women, and expresses bad messages. This article offers a (likely provocative) defense of the provocation doctrine. While fully acknowledging widespread gender inequity in society, the Article argues that the feminist critique may overestimate the provocation doctrine’s contribution to such inequality and underestimate its value to marginalized defendants. Provocation, like many legal doctrines, has a complex history. Further, the limited empirical evidence available appears to undermine rather than confirm assertions that the defense disproportionately burdens women and proves strategically vital to murderous men. Moreover, efforts to utilize criminal punishment to express an anti-masculinity, anti-violence message may, in the end, reinforce destructive masculine norms, exacerbate racial hierarchies, justify extant unequal power distributions, and, ironically, increase violence and suffering. In the end, the Article cautions that the feminist critique of provocation and similar progressive critiques of doctrinal leniency may unintentionally instantiate and entrench the punitive impulses that create and sustain mass incarceration.