Provocation is a legal term speaking to the intent of a person committing very serious crimes like murder. This defense is not available in all regions, and, where employed, it may only be allowable as a defense in murder cases to reduce, but not dismiss, charges. Similar defenses available elsewhere include loss of control or mental or emotional distress that is extreme. In its narrowest sense and where used most, like in the UK, provocation essentially alleges that the person murdered did something so enraging or upsetting to the murderer, they provoked the attack that led to the crime.
Common actions that might be considered provocative include making threatening, but not at the moment life-threatening, gestures or statements to the person who commits the crime. Certain actions like infidelity might prompt a legal defense of provocation. Long-term true acts of violence, such as abuse of a spouse also may so provoke that spouse, that in a moment when the abusive spouse is not being threatening, the battered spouse murders him or her. This defense should be seen as different than justifiable self-defense, and rather, refers to a person becoming so enraged they cannot help their actions to a certain point. It’s also different than temporary insanity, which may be a reason to excuse charges and find someone not guilty.
This is why provocation can’t generally be used as an argument that the person shouldn’t be charged as a criminal. The accused did not lose mental capacity to judge the difference between right and wrong, and he or she wasn’t facing an immediate threat to life. Instead, that person was provoked into acting in a horrible way under extreme duress. Had the person not been provoked, he wouldn’t have acted this way, and thus it becomes reasonable to assume that a murder was not intentional or committed in the same spirit that would have occurred had the provoking behavior not existed.
When successfully argued, a provocation defense may reduce charges or sentence. A person, who might in other circumstances be charged with homicide, could face manslaughter charges, instead. Sometimes courts leave the final charge up to a jury, and they can decide whether a defendant has successfully proven provocation and what charge is appropriate based on this. It deserves restating that being provoked doesn’t mean avoiding jail time, but it could mean a person avoids being charged with a level of murder that signifies pure intention.
There is movement in areas where provocation is an allowable defense to eliminate it. In 2009, New Zealand abolished it, and other countries may follow. There have been extreme cases where people committing horrendous crimes have served very little jail time, despite committing murder. A strong argument against this defense is that adults need to learn how to control themselves.