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You will now examine a case in which a defendant has asked the court to excuse them from criminal liability, or to reduce their liability, based on their culture. A cultural defense — or the assertion that a person’s different cultural background influenced his or her actions — can be used as a mitigating factor to help a defendant get a plea deal or a break on his sentence.
Defense lawyers claim that the idea of using a cultural defense is to help explain a defendant’s personal circumstances and why they would do what they did. This coincides with American notions of “individualized justice” and “cultural pluralism.” Supporters of this defense state they are not concerned with social consequences, i.e. if other immigrants think their behavior will be tolerated, because the concern of the court is whether or not the defendant is guilty based on all the evidence.
On the other hand, there is concern that increased use of the cultural defense will expose U.S. courts to patriarchal values from abroad — to the detriment of immigrant women, many of whom were treated as second-class citizens in the lands they left behind.
Some Americans do not want to import these cultural values into the judicial system and don’t want women victimized by customs that may no longer be permitted in the homelands. Americans don’t want so-called cultural experts perpetuating certain stereotypes that may not be accurate. Others point to the fact that the victims of these “cultural crimes” are always society’s powerless — women and children. Others claim that foreign customs should not override American law, since “[e]very foreigner residing in a country . . . is as much bound to obey its laws as native citizens.” Some worry about backlash, arguing that because of this defense where people get lesser penalties or convictions for lesser crimes, that people will believe that immigrants are getting away with something.
In New York, Chinese immigrant Dong Lu Chen was convicted of manslaughter and given five years on probation for killing his wife. He had picked up a hammer and hit his wife eight times, leaving her to die in her bed. Chen, 51, who left China two years before, claimed a “cultural defense.” He said that a person raised outside the United States should not be held fully responsible for conduct which, while illegal in the U.S., might be acceptable in the home country.
Chen had killed his wife in their apartment because she had been unfaithful. At his trial in New York, his lawyer argued that traditional Chinese notions (customs/law) about the shame of adultery had propelled him to violence.
Directions: Read the following cases that used culture as a defense.
1. identify three arguments “for” the cultural defense
2. Also, please explain whether the person should be found guilty or innocent and for what length of sentence would you impose if any.
3. Your response should be no less than 250 words. And, you must respond to a classmate, in no less than 50-100 words. I am looking that you examined this from a sociological perspective to include symbolic interactionist perspectives on deviance: differential association theory, social bond theory, and labeling theory.
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