Intent to commit a crime is most often key to your guilt
This week’s criminal trial provided a good example that proving a defendant’s intent to commit a crime usually provides the best chance to stay out of jail, even when it might seem the prosecution has you dead to rights. That was the case this past Wednesday.
Henry was charged with misdemeanor harassment by yelling at his girlfriend, Tara, that if she didn’t return his children to him he would “put a fucking bullet in your head!” This was after Tara left Henry’s home with their two children after one of the couple’s many arguments. To make the defense more difficult, this statement was recorded, clear as day, on a police officer’s body camera video while he was standing next to Tara. That video was going to come in as evidence. Most people would look at that video and think there was no way Henry would not be convicted. Surely, any jury would vote guilty after seeing and hearing that video.
However, putting Henry’s statement in context by focusing on his intent ended that certainty. This is because proving intent is usually a prosecutor’s toughest element of a crime to prove. In this case, the elements of the crime of harassment are:
· Defendant made a communication
· With another person
· With intent to harass, threaten or abuse that other person.
Did Henry make a communication? Definitely. Was it with another person, such as his girlfriend? Also definitely. Was that statement meant to harass, threaten or abuse? Definitely……well now, let’s hang on a minute.
In most contexts, “I’ll put a fucking bullet in your head” is definitely a threat. However, not for this couple, who had been together unmarried for about two years. In that time, Tara had been arrested twice for assault against Henry, once for pulling a gun on him. I had video of Tara breaking through Henry’s door to get their son. I had multiple witnesses who testified Tara had made similar threats to Henry. And I had evidence that Tara, only a couple of days later, had met alone with Henry to force him to sign custody papers, thereby showing she clearly did not take his statement as a threat. In short, I was able to show that, in the context of their dysfunctional relationship, “I’ll put a fucking bullet in your head” is about the same as saying “Good morning!” So, because the jury found Henry’s statement was not intended as a threat, the jury acquitted him. This even after the prosecution played the video for the jury three times.
Most crimes contain the element of mens rea, or the mental state of the defendant. There are four mental states:
· Intent – meaning the person intended to cause the outcome that was the crime. Example: Firing a gun at a specific person trying to kill or harm that person.
· Knowingly – meaning the person thought it probable their actions would cause the outcome that was a crime. Example: Firing a gun in the direction of a person with the understanding that bullet can kill a person.
· Recklessly – meaning the person should have known their outrageous action would cause the outcome that was a crime. Example: Firing a gun aimlessly into a crowd of people.
· Negligence – meaning the person’s lack of thought cause the outcome that was a crime. Example: Firing a gun at anyone assuming it’s unloaded without checking.
As with all things in human relationships, context is key. A threat to one person is not a threat to another. This is why it’s important to take a hard look at how a person’s criminal actions are intended.