Murder and the Reasonable Man

Passion and Fear in the Criminal Courtroom

371 pages

October, 2007

ISBN: 9780814751169



Also available in



Part of the Critical America series


Cynthia Lee is Professor of Law at George Washington University School of Law, where she teaches Criminal Law, Criminal Procedure, and Professional Responsibility.

All books by Cynthia Lee

A man murders his wife after she has admitted her infidelity; another man kills an openly gay teammate after receiving a massage; a third man, white, goes for a jog in a “bad” neighborhood, carrying a pistol, and shoots an African American teenager who had his hands in his pockets. When brought before the criminal justice system, all three men argue that they should be found “not guilty”; the first two use the defense of provocation, while the third argues he used his gun in self-defense.

Drawing upon these and similar cases, Cynthia Lee shows how two well-established, traditional criminal law defenses—the doctrines of provocation and self-defense—enable majority-culture defendants to justify their acts of violence. While the reasonableness requirement, inherent in both defenses, is designed to allow community input and provide greater flexibility in legal decision-making, the requirement also allows majority-culture defendants to rely on dominant social norms, such as masculinity, heterosexuality, and race (i.e., racial stereotypes), to bolster their claims of reasonableness. At the same time, Lee examines other cases that demonstrate that the reasonableness requirement tends to exclude the perspectives of minorities, such as heterosexual women, gays and lesbians, and persons of color.

Murder and the Reasonable Man not only shows how largely invisible social norms and beliefs influence the outcomes of certain criminal cases, but goes further, suggesting three tentative legal reforms to address problems of bias and undue leniency. Ultimately, Lee cautions that the true solution lies in a change in social attitudes.


  • “Provocative and persuasive. In this well-written and meticulously documented book, Cynthia Lee demonstrates how the law has defined ‘reasonableness’ in criminal law to favor men against women, straight men against gay men, and whites against blacks. Lee’s synthesis of many seemingly different examples, with thoughtful responses to the various objections that might be raised, is legal scholarship that can make a difference in our social practices. This is a serious and compelling book that should lead to reform.”

    —Frank H. Wu, author of Yellow: Race in America beyond Black and White

  • “For Cynthia Lee, legal analysis is not a scholastic exercise in logical deduction or philosophical puzzle-solving, but a vivid form of social criticism. In relentlessly exposing the law's foundation in partisan social norms, she challenges the prevailing modes of legal scholarship as well as the prevailing understandings of voluntary manslaughter and self-defense doctrine. Murder and the Reasonable Man establishes Lee as one of the pre-eminent commentators on American criminal law.”

    —Dan Kahan, Professor of Law, Yale Law School

  • “Smart, insightful, and important, this book proves that the criminal justice system does not treat all persons equally—that the reasonable man is a man, and that men get away with murder, while women pay with their lives. Must reading for students of the law, gender studies, and all those who care about equal justice.”

    —Susan Estrich, Robert Kingsley Professor of Law and Political Science, University of Southern California, and author of Real Rape, Getting Away with Murder: How Politics is Destroying the Criminal Justice System

  • “Lee's book is a compelling and well-informed analysis of the issues raised when courts confront questions of reasonableness in high-profile, headline-grabbing cases.”


  • “Lee challenges readers to question the concept of 'reasonableness' and how it has been applied. . . Scholars, students, professionals and the educated public will appreciate the careful, well-documented argument and pertinent examples.”

    Library Journal