Measuring Wrongful Intent

Wrongful intent often factors into the determination of a verdict.  While the “I didn’t mean to” cliché is at risk for being abused in a court of law, the claim is often legitimate.  The common issue with these cases, though, is determining whether or not the individual is legally responsible despite their intent.

I think that in determining wrongful intent, we must distinguish the difference between legal and moral responsibility.  Given a murder case in which violence was premeditated, but murder was not anticipated, a jury must determine the degree of responsibility for the accused.  While the defendant is certainly morally responsible for his or her actions, is he/she legally responsible for something that was not premeditated?

This question can be answered in several ways.  The first thought may be that because the accused actively sought to harm the victim, they are inherently responsible for what happens to them.  While there is no intention to kill at stake, the end result supersedes any prior intention—the basic premeditation to harm is enough to convict.  The second approach does not find the defendant guilty, as their intention to simply harm is sufficient in taking away any legal responsibility.  As opposed to using the end result at a determinant, this approach puts the defendant’s motive at the forefront.

I tend to more readily align with the first thought, as any intent at all should innately assign responsibility to the accused.  When the attacker decided to inflict harm on another, they immediately became responsible for what was to come.  As a result, I find the “I didn’t mean to” claim to carry little weight in this case.

Nonetheless, this issue applies to a variety of other cases.  Given a situation in which the accused had no negligent intent, but still committed a crime, the issue of wrongful intent must be treated differently.  In essence, a jury must thoroughly assess the character of the defendant’s intent before making a decision.  In doing so, a jury is more clearly able to assign legal responsibility.

Determining wrongful intent is, of course, a very slippery slope  Juries and judges alike must be absolute certain of intent before determining an outcome.  It is also vital to recognize whether or not the defendant is telling the truth.  If one indictment is nullified on the basis of their intent, it will set a precedent for cases to come.  More people would then seek to use this kind of defense, using a lie to set themselves up for freedom.  In understanding wrongful intent, judges and juries must be absolutely clear on the intention of the convicted, ensuring that this defense is not taken for granted.


3 thoughts on “Measuring Wrongful Intent

  1. I would definitely agree with Connor in that I would want to hold the person who only intended to do harm, but not seriously injure another person liable for whatever transpired after they initiated the event. Even though it is extremely unfortunate that some situations can spiral out of control and lead to unintended and sometimes even unforeseeable consequences, I still think that where there is criminal intent, there is also a liability that holds the aggressor both morally and legally responsible.
    I think that a good criterion for determining whether a person should be held responsible for unexpected events is if what transpires is logically possible—that is, within the realm of logical possibilities. If the unintended result in question could conceivably occur, then (as a general principle) the person at fault should be held accountable for it. As we briefly discussed in class, there was a case in which a man who broke into a house where he frightened the homeowner and was held accountable for the homeowner’s death. In that case, I think it is quite clear that although the consequence is unusual, it is in no way inconceivable. Similarly, in the case in Italy where a 20 year old under the influence of ecstasy stabbed his friend 25 times, I think that he should be held at least partially responsible for his actions. I do concede that there really was no way he could have stopped himself after he started. However, it was his choice to forfeit control of his faculties, and he probably would not have committed such an assault had he not been under the influence. What he should have considered before taking the drug was whether anything like this could possibly happen. Since this is not unforeseeable either, I think that he should take at least partial ownership of his actions, however unintentional they were.

  2. I agree with your claim that determining wrongful intent–or any kind of intent, for that matter–can often be a slippery slope. How, though, is it possible for juries and judges to arrive at an absolutely certain judgment or evaluation of a defendant’s intent?

    In Bianchi’s case, for example, the intent of his actions was (initially) essentially nullified by his “not guilty by reason of insanity” defense. Psychologists, psychiatrists, and experts in their subjective fields were thoroughly convinced of Bianchi’s lack of responsibility (and subsequent intent), which was a complete hoax! I have a hard time wrapping my head around the notion of determining intentionality, which is why I’m thankful for the safeguards of trial by jury and precedent that help mitigate circumstances and keep trials unbiased and fair.

  3. Intent is very important in both legal and moral responsibility. As citizens, we are born into a state , and through education we learn to understand that along with the many public goods we are afforded we also must be legally responsible for our actions for the protection of the state and its individuals. A lack of moral responsibility may or may not be a personal choice, but as a citizen one must always be held legally responsible, or threaten the integrity of the state.

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