I am often confronted with arguments for or against biological or social determinism versus free will. One of the arguments I hear regularly is that determinism is bad for society because denying the possibility "to have done otherwise" undermines the foundation of our moral system.

As a final point, I heard people name the case of an defendant being exculpated in front of a U.S. court because the judge has been convinced that there is a biological/social determinism that didn't allow the defendant to do otherwise.

While I am not interested in a discussion on the topic of guilt and determinism, I would love to know if such a case has ever taken place. I don't mean cases where clinically verifiable impairment, like alcoholism or a environmentally induced lack of empathy, has been used to explain the deed, but a case where the only explanation of the act is the argument that a person isn't free to do otherwise as she did because of determinism in any way.

Has there ever been a U.S. case where the defendant has been found not guilty, despite committing an otherwise criminal act, because it was argued that it wasn't their fault due to social constructs or biological reasons outside of their control?

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    Also, are you restricting the question to trials? Or also allowing examples from appellate review? It would be great to have a notable concrete claim to examine, so that these ambiguities are avoided. Please see our help page on how to ask. – user5582 Jun 18 '13 at 16:09
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    This question appears to be off topic or at a minimum needs to greatly clarified with regards to exactly what you are trying to get at. Are you referring to, say, a murder trial where the defendant is trying to argue they are not guilty due to determinism or in the much more general sense that is addressed in the answer by @Sancho? – rjzii Jun 18 '13 at 16:16
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    I have substantially edited the question. However, as @Sancho suggests, it would help to have an example of the claim, so we can be sure we are not tilting at windmills. – Oddthinking Jun 18 '13 at 16:42
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    In Canada an interesting case, about sleepwalking, would be R v Parks. Though this does not answer the question, being not a US case and more automatism than social determinism, it may prove interesting since it illuminates a judicial standard for mens rea vis-à-vis determinism. – Brian M. Hunt Jun 18 '13 at 22:35
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    Also, you say, Unfortunately I can't come up with a concrete claim, because this isn't my argument. Please read through our FAQ on question notability. Even though it's not your claim, we need you to show that somebody has actually made the claim you're challenging. – user5582 Jun 18 '13 at 23:30

Soft determinism and addiction

In my opinion, a case that could be considered an example of this is Robinson v. California 370 U.S. 660 (1962). (The opinion, Oral argument audio).

Oyez.org summarizes:

A California statute made it a criminal offense for a person to "be addicted to the use of narcotics." Lawrence Robinson was convicted under the law, which required a sentence of at least ninety days in jail. A state appellate court affirmed Robinson's conviction on appeal.

The Supreme Court overturned the conviction, holding that that law is unconstitutional.

The Court likened the law to one making it a criminal offense "to be mentally ill, or a leper, or to be afflicted with a venereal disease," and argued that the state could not punish persons merely because of their "status" of addiction.

I cite this as an example because the court held that a law that punishes somebody for something that is beyond their control is "an infliction of cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments". (Robinson v. California, at 666)

The court says:

In this Court, counsel for the State recognized that narcotic addiction is an illness. Indeed, it is apparently an illness which may be contracted innocently or involuntarily. (Ibid. at 667)

Not only may addiction innocently result from the use of medically prescribed narcotics, but a person may even be a narcotics addict from the moment of his birth. (Ibid. at footnote 9)

"[D]ecisions expanding the Robinson rationale to reach addiction-related acts, such as narcotics possession, extract from the language of Robinson a second holding, that punishment of involuntary acts caused by defendant's illness, drug addiction, is unconstitutional." (Determinism and the Drug Addiction Defence to Criminal Prosecution, at 365)

Section VI of Determinism and Drug Addiction Defence to Criminal Prosecution is a review of a line of cases stemming from the Robinson decision. (Ibid., at 370)

Close reading of the cases in the Robinson line reveals one or both of these theories in every case. Explicitly or implicitly, courts have relied on the in-dwelling agent or soft determinist theories or, in the of cases, combinations of both. (Ibid.)

It goes on to describe Easter v. District of Columbia 361 F. 2d 50 (D.C. Cir. 1966):

because the alcoholic "could not have done otherwise," he failed to meet the soft determinist criterion of moral responsibility. (Determinism and the Drug Addiction Defence to Criminal Prosecution, at 371)

Directly quoting Easter v. District of Columbia 361 F. 2d 50 (D.C. Cir. 1966):

The alcoholic's presence in public is not his act, for he did not will it. (at para 1)

It also describes, Driver v. Hinant 356 F.2d 761 (4th Cir. 1966):

Since the disease has driven the will out of the body, moral responsibility becomes impossible. (Determinism and the Drug Addiction Defence to Criminal Prosecution, at 372)

Directly from Driver v. Hinant 356 F.2d 761 (4th Cir. 1966), at para 12:

This addiction-- chronic alcoholism-- is now almost universally accepted medically as a disease. Obviously, this includes appearances in public, as here, unwilled and ungovernable by the victim. Although his misdoing objectively comprises the physical elements of a crime, nevertheless no crime has been perpetrated because the conduct was neither actuated by an evil intent nor accompanied with a consciousness of wrongdoing, indispensable ingredients of a crime.

Determinism and Drug Addiction Defence to Criminal Prosecution goes on to summarize several other cases with similar reliance on soft determinism.

Social determinism

Battered woman/person syndrome has been argued as a defense.

In State v. Kelly 22 Ill.97 N.J. 178, 478 A.2d 364 (1984), it was held that:

The testimony of the expert witness would have shown that the Defendant suffered from battered-woman’s syndrome. Evidence of this affliction was relevant to the Defendant’s case insomuch as it arose out of a history of physical abuse from her husband and both explained why she had never left her husband and why her fear that her husband was going to kill her was reasonable for someone in an abusive relationship. (from casebriefs.com)

Harder determinism

If you're looking for examples of harder determinism as defenses, you're not going to find them. The above examples of impaired mental states and related diminished capacity defenses (that I didn't review) are as close as you will get. Even they have been reigned in by the courts' desires to refrain from adopting a theory of determinism. (Michele Cotton, A Foolish Consistency: Keeping Determinism out of the Criminal Law, 15 B.U. Pub. Int. L.J. 1 (2005-2006))

For example, in United States v. Brawner 471 F.2d 969 (1972), while accepting the diminished capacity defense, the court added that it:

does not permit the receipt of psychiatric testimony based on the conception that mental disorder is only a relative concept and that the behavior of every individual is dictated by forces—ultimately, his genes and lifelong environment—that are unconscious and beyond his control. . . . [W]e are not embarked on enquiry that must yield to tenets of the philosophy of determinism. The law accepts free will and blame-worthiness as a general premise.

The U.S. Supreme Court has said:

It is as universal and persistent in mature systems of law as belief in freedom of the human will and a consequent ability and duty of the normal individual to choose between good and evil. (In Morissette v. United States. 342 U.S. 246 (72 S.Ct. 240, 96 L.Ed. 288) (1952))

It also has called a "deterministic view of human conduct" "inconsistent with the underlying precepts of our criminal justice system". (United States v. Grayson 438 U.S. 41 (1978))

From Steward Machine Co. v. Davis, 301 U.S. 548, 590 (1937) (at 589-590):

But to hold that motive or temptation is equivalent to coercion is to plunge the law in endless difficulties. The outcome of such a doctrine is the acceptance of a philosophical determinism by which choice becomes impossible. Till now, the law has been guided by a robust common sense which assumes the freedom of the will as a working hypothesis in the solution of its problems.

In my opinion, the strongest rejection of a deterministic theory of law is from Bethea v. United States, 365 A.2d 64, 83 n.39 (D.C. 1976):

Implicit in our treatment of these issues is our recognition that the law rejects the deterministic theory of individual behavior. See United States v. Brawner, supra, at 27, 471 F.2d at 995. While that theory has some adherents, the notion that a person's conduct is a simple function of extrinsic forces and circumstances over which he has no control is an unacceptable contradiction of the concept of free will, which is the sine qua non of our criminal justice system. See United States v. Chandler, supra, 393 F.2d at 929. We reaffirm the law's fundamental presumption that regardless of possible environmental misfortune or deprivation, each person is possessed of the capacity to choose his course of conduct. As expressed in United States v. Currens, supra, at 773:

It is only through [the assumption that each individual has the capacity of choice or control over his behavior] that society has found it possible to impose duties and create liabilities designed to safeguard persons and property.

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  • That edit was VERY helpful, thank you very much for the sources. – iphigenie Jun 19 '13 at 13:35
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    Great answer, saying all the things I thought of but didn't have time to follow up on (and many more that I didn't think of). – DJClayworth Jun 19 '13 at 15:21

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