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Diminished Capacity

See Also:


Specific Intent Crime:
A crime whose elements includes a desire to achieve a specific wrongful result.

General Intent Crime:
A crime whose elements require only that a defendant intend to undertake an action that he or she knows, or should know, that will or may cause a wrongful or illegal result.

The doctrine of diminished capacity allows a defendant to avoid criminal liability by showing that his mental capacity was so diminished that he could not have had the intent required to commit the crime he is charged with. See People v. Wells, 33 Cal. 2d 330 (1949). Please note the difference between diminished capacity and an insanity defense. Diminished capacity allows the defendant to try to prove that, because of a mental impairment, he lacked the required intent to commit the crime. Insanity is not invoked to disprove intent. Rather it is used to show that the defendant lacked a more basic capacity to avoid engaging in morally reprehensible behavior, either because he did not understand that what he was doing was wrong or because he was unable to control his actions. Thus, evidence that falls short of proving that a defendant was criminally insane may still be used to prove diminished capacity.

Most jurisdictions do not allow the use of diminished capacity as a defense, reasoning that the insanity defense is the legal avenue through which a defendant can try to link his criminal activity to a legitimate mental defect. A defendant should not be allowed to obtain an acquittal by using a mental defect that would not qualify as legal insanity.

However, even in the jurisdictions that do allow a diminished capacity defense, it is only allowed for specific intent crimes. A defendant cannot use this defense for general intent crimes. Further, a defendant who successfully brings a diminished capacity defense for a specific intent crime can still be convicted of a lesser included offense if that lesser included offense is a general intent crime. See People v. Noah, 5 Cal. 3d 469 (1971). For example:

Fred breaks into Barney’s house with the intent of raping Barney’s wife, Betty. After Fred commits the crime, he is caught and charged with burglary and rape. If Fred successfully mounts a diminished capacity defense, he can be acquitted of the burglary because burglary is a specific intent crime (the entry must be done with the specific intent to commit a crime inside the house). However, he can still be convicted of the rape because rape is a general intent crime and is thus not subject to a diminished capacity defense.

The Model Penal Code, however, allows the diminished capacity defense for every category of crime, even general intent crimes.