Mitigating Circumstances

Mitigating circumstances are facts that do not excuse a person for civil or criminal misconduct, but which may show that he had some valid reasons for his actions. Mitigating circumstances are often used in court proceedings when the judge or jury determines a defendant’s sentence for a crime, or damages in a civil lawsuit. To explore this concept, consider the mitigating circumstances definition.

Definition of Mitigating Circumstances


  1. Circumstances that tend to lessen the culpability of a defendant.

What are Mitigating Circumstances

All court cases are different, with specific circumstances that tend to either make the crime or wrongdoing more odious, or which lighten the defendant’s blame. Circumstances which lighten the blame or culpability are called “mitigating circumstances,” and may be considered by the judge or jury in determining the sentence or award of damages after a judgment has been rendered.

While mitigating circumstances do not affect the decision of whether or not the defendant committed the wrong, they may help the judge lean toward leniency in sentencing or award in the end. Circumstances or facts that shed additional light on the heinous or shocking nature of the defendant’s actions are called “aggravating circumstances,” and may be used to increase the severity of the sentence or amount of the award.

Mitigating Circumstances in Civil Law

Mitigating circumstances in civil law are used not to determine the guilt or wrongdoing of the defendant, but to determine the amount that the plaintiff should receive as an award if he wins the case. While mitigating circumstances in civil law do not imply that a person did not suffer damages, they may reduce the amount that the plaintiff receives.

For example:

Brad filed a civil lawsuit against John, claiming John had defamed his character by sending an email to their coworkers, in an attempt to damage Brad’s reputation. During the civil court proceedings, John showed the court that Brad had written obscenities on his cubicle wall.

If John can prove that he reasonably believed that it was Brad who defaced his space, the court may consider this to be a mitigating circumstance, which would lessen John’s liability, and decrease the amount of damages he may be ordered to pay.

Mitigating Circumstances in Criminal Law

When deciding what sentence to hand down for a defendant who has been convicted of a crime, the court usually considers information about the crime committed, as well as information about the offender. Mitigating circumstances do not, in any way, dismiss the fact that the defendant violated the law, but they may lessen the penalties that the defendant receives for committing the crime.

For example:

Wanda walks in on her husband having an affair with another woman. She becomes enraged, picks up a heavy lamp, and hits him over the head, killing him. If Wanda is convicted of murdering her husband, the court may consider her emotional state as a mitigating circumstance when sentencing her. This does not excuse Wanda from committing murder, but sheds light on the reason for her actions.

Mitigating Circumstances and the Death Penalty

In any criminal case in which the death penalty might be imposed, the judge or jury may consider any mitigating circumstances presented by the defense in determining whether to sentence the defendant to death or life in prison. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that a jury should weigh mitigating factors presented by the defense against aggravating factors presented by the prosecution in making its decision.

The laws of each jurisdiction define what factors may be considered aggravating circumstances. These generally include such factors as:

  • Murders committed for financial gain
  • Murders committed during the commission of another crime
  • Murders of police officers
  • Murders of multiple victims
  • During capital cases, the defense can produce evidence showing the court why the defendant should not be sentenced to death.

Common Mitigating Circumstances

Because many situations may be considered mitigating factors, there is no list set by law. Commonly used mitigating factors include:

  • Defendant’s Age – whether the defendant was an adult or minor at the time of the crime.
  • Mental capacity – such as the defendant’s intellectual disability, or mental state at the time of the crime.
  • History of Abuse – whether the defendant has a history of being abused.
  • No Criminal Record – this usually refers to a criminal history as an adult, but very serious offenses as a minor may be considered an aggravating circumstance.
  • Victim Culpability – the victim willingly took part in the crime or other events, which may have led to the crime.
  • Unusual Circumstances – the defendant’s actions were due to temporary emotional stress or severe provocation.
  • No Harm Done – the actions of the defendant were somehow justified, and did not cause harm to another person.
  • Necessity – the defendant committed the crime out of necessity.
  • Remorse – the defendant clearly shows he is remorseful for his actions.

Mitigating Circumstances Change Life Sentence to Death Penalty

In 1985, Cordero Neelley kidnapped a 13-year-old girl so that her husband Alvin could have sex with her. Neelley took the girl to a hotel and threatened to kill her if she resisted. After beating and sexually assaulting the girl repeatedly over the course of several days, Neelley injected her with drain cleaner six times in an attempt to kill her. Neeley then shot the girl in the back. Neelley then picked up a couple, killed the man, and took his wife to her husband at the hotel. The man survived, but she killed the woman the following day.

Neeley turned herself in the next day, and was charged with multiple counts of murder. The jury convicted Neeley, and recommended a life sentence. The judge disagreed, after weighing the aggravating and mitigating circumstances, sentencing Neeley to death.

The aggravating circumstance considered by the judge included:

  • The crime was committed during the course of kidnapping
  • The crime was extremely atrocious and cruel compared to other capital offenses that had come before the court

The mitigating circumstances considered by the judge included:

  • Neelley’s age, as she was only 18 at the time of the crime
  • Neeley was greatly influenced by her husband

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Civil Lawsuit – A lawsuit brought about in court when one person claims to have suffered a loss due to the actions of another person.
  • Civil Law – The body of law dealing with private matters between individuals and corporations and other entities.
  • Criminal Law – The body of law dealing with criminal offenses and their punishment.
  • Culpability – Blameworthiness, deserving of blame or censure.
  • Defendant – A party against whom a lawsuit has been filed in civil court, or who has been accused of, or charged with, a crime or offense.
  • Damages – A monetary award in compensation for a financial loss, loss of or damage to personal or real property, or an injury.
  • Defamation An intentional false statement that harms a person’s reputation, or which decreases the respect or regard in which a person is held.