Source: p 236-237, With Good Reason, An Introduction to Informal Fallacies (2000 6 ed) by York U. Prof. S. Morris Engel

  The trouble with such appeals [to Pity] is that, however are, they may be irrelevant to the issues, in which case they need carry no weight with us. As in all fallacies of relevance, we need to be clear about the question. Thus it would be fallacious for a defense attorney to offer evidence about the defendant's unfortunate lot as a reason why the court should find [1.] him or her innocent of a crime [End of 1.]. It would not be fallacious, on the other hand, for an attorney to offer such evidence as [2.] a reason for treating the convicted person with leniency [End of 2.].

A crime comprises 2 elements: 3. Actus reus, 4. Mens rea. I understand that 2 is separate from 3; whether or not the defendant deserves leniency, changes not the defendant's actions.

I also understand that 1 and 2 reference separate stages of the Criminal Trial: 1 the Judgement, and 2 the Sentencing after the defendant has been convicted.

But is not it possible that 2 can affect and connect with 1? If 4 is absent, then a jury may treat the defendant with leniency by deciding to find the defendant NOT GUILTY (innocent)?
Then the defendant would not be convicted?

  • 2
    The whole point is that the jury has no charter for leniency, and should not let pity influence what is supposed to be an impartial and dispassionate decision on whether or not the accused committed the deeds of which he is accused. They're there to make a determination, and misusing that authority to decide a fate is an abuse of the system. A lawyer trying to sway them to make such abuses is equally in error. In this case, that error is labeled "an appeal to pity".
    – Dan Bron
    Jun 19, 2016 at 15:36
  • in death penalty cases in the U.S., the jury does have a charter for considering leniency in the sentencing phase of the trial. an appeal to pity is simply a case that perhaps the jury should not decide to execute the defendant that they earlier convicted, because of the mitigating circumstances of some unfortunate lot (such as a really rough childhood). Nov 20, 2016 at 2:16

1 Answer 1


Well, in some cases. If a man is in court for running after a woman, catching her, and then beating her up, and the defense points out his bad misfortune of having lost both legs before that event took place, then this might make the defendant "not guilty".

PS. It is exactly what the question asked about - can evidence about the defendant's unfortunate lot be a reason for the court to find him innocent.

  • 3
    That's not an appeal to pity, it's a defense (if it is known that the actual perpetrator had working legs).
    – Dan Bron
    Jun 19, 2016 at 15:32
  • For clarity, the lawyer is not arguing the defendant be found innocent because he's had a bad lot in life -- he's arguing the defendant should be found innocent because he was incapable of committing the crime.
    – user6559
    Mar 14, 2018 at 3:57

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