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Criminal Defense 101: State of Mind

November 10, 2016

If you have been accused of a crime in New Jersey, the case may depend on your “mens rea”. This takes the defendant’s state of mind into account. One notable exception to that rule are in the violation of statute dealing with a per se crime. Such a crime does not require evidence of intent.

Working with a New Jersey criminal defense attorney will help craft the arguments regarding intent. For example, what evidence may be excluded as too prejudicial or what may be included as relevant to counter the prosecution’s case?

Relevant NJ Law

NJ has almost wholly adopted the Model Penal Code. Accordingly, the mental state, or mens rea, of the defendant can range between one of four states. These are listed in a recent LectLaw.com article as:

  • “intention” or “purpose,”
  • “knowledge,”
  • “recklessness” (often called “willful blindness”), and
  • “gross (or criminal) negligence.”

A criminal act committed intentionally carries a much more severe penalty than almost any other kind. That’s why criminal defense attorneys will try to argue that a lesser culpability by showing the defendant’s mental state was something less than intentional, with one exception: the mental state of recklessness.

Often, the degree of culpability for a reckless act mirrors the punishment for one committed intentionally.

Why is that? Because the law views reckless acts as those that contain a seed of intent; the intent to turn away from even the smallest degree of care. This argument resonates especially strongly with a murder charge. In New Jersey, there are two main mental states in a homicide: purposeful knowing and in the course of committing a second, underlying felony.

In a recent case, the state of Montana accused a newly-wed wife of murdering her husband by intentionally pushing him from a cliff. The criminal defense attorney in the case argued that his client acted recklessly by ignoring (or being “willfully blind” as the Model Penal Code describes it) the danger inherent in leading her husband atop a dangerous height. The judge in the case rejected the argument, and ruled she acted with intent.

Although a technical argument, the difference between arguing intent and recklessness in a New Jersey murder charge can make an enormous difference to the criminal defendant. Speak to an experienced Freehold criminal defense attorney to discuss the best arguments in handling your criminal defense case.

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