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How does “mens rea” affect criminal cases?

A defendant’s intentions may factor into how the Indiana justice system prosecutes the crime. In some instances, the defendant’s mindset and mental state could establish that no criminal violation occurred, but the person may face a civil complaint. “Mens rea” might not mean much to someone who doesn’t work in law enforcement, but the concept could play a central role in someone’s criminal defense strategy.

Understanding mens reas

“Mens rea” means “guilty mind” in Latin. The term refers to criminal intent, and intent factors heavily into what charges someone faces. A person who points a gun at someone and deliberately shoots the person might face murder charges. The charges may be first-degree or second-degree murder depending on the intent. If the weapon was discharged accidentally after someone dropped it, the criminal complaint could be manslaughter or no charges at all. Again, intent plays a vital role when determining who broke what law.

Criminal violations come with punishments described in state statutes. Determining the intent not only defines the crime but also points to possible penalties. The difference could be no jail time vs. many years in prison.

Establishing intent

A criminal defense strategy may involve countering the prosecution’s description of intent. A prosecutor might rely heavily on an eyewitness to establish a specific intention. However, the witness might be mistaken or outright lying. When a witness loses credibility, the prosecutor may end up with a weak case.

The lack of intent to commit a crime does not necessarily free the accused from criminal charges. However, if the action was unintentional, it may be best for the defendant to prove a lack of intent in court. Credibly establishing a lack of intent might help plea bargain negotiations as well.