In law, circumstance that diminishes the culpability of one who has committed a criminal offense. In many Anglo-American legal systems, provocation of the accused by the victim can reduce a charge of first-degree murder to second-degree murder or to manslaughter. In Britain, a charge of murder may be reduced to manslaughter if the accused is found to be suffering diminished capacity (see diminished responsibility). The Italian penal code allows consideration of motives of honour. Extenuating circumstances also are a factor in many civil actions.
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In law, extenuating circumstances are criminal cases in which, though an offence has been committed without legal justification or excuse, its gravity, from the point of view of punishment or moral opprobrium, is mitigated or reduced by reason of unusual or extreme facts leading up to or attending the commission of the offence.
According to Quite independently of any recommendation by the jury, the judge is entitled to take into account matters proved during the trial, or laid before him after verdict, as a guide to him in determining the quantum of punishment. Under French law (Code d'instruction criminelle, art. 345), it is the sole right and the duty of a jury in a criminal case to pronounce whether or not the commission of the offence was attended by extenuating circumstances (circonstances attenuantes). They are not bound to say anything about the matter, but the whole or the majority may qualify the verdict by finding extenuation, and if they do, the powers of the court to impose the maximum punishment are taken away and the sentence to be pronounced is reduced in accordance with the scale laid down in art. 463 of the Code penal. The most important result of this rule in earlier times was to enable a jury to prevent the infliction of capital punishment for murder (now abolished).
In cases of what is termed "crime passionel," French juries, when they do not acquit, almost invariably find extenuation; and a like verdict has become common even in the case of cold-blooded and sordid murders.