Questioning the Role of Intent in the Judicial Process

Although in theory it’s good to account for the intent of an accused individual when deciding legal responsibility, for many cases such consideration has the potential to have adverse side effects. While I do not think that our legal system should entirely disregard the intentions of a person when deciding responsibility, I think they should be considered with much scrutiny.

Firstly, while the individual may not have intended on committing the crime, in many cases the offender may have put him or herself at risk of hurting another individual. For example, if a person accidentally ran someone over while drunk driving. They clearly did not go out with the intention of killing someone, and yet by drinking and getting behind a car wheel, they put themselves at risk of harming another person. Therefore, while this individual may not be entirely at fault, punishing such an individual could act as a deterrent to others who are considering taking such risks, regardless of their intent.

Additionally, regardless of their intentions, the consequences of the accused actions may still the be the same. For example, in the case of accidental death by shaking a baby, as we discussed in class. It is all good and well to tell the mother that you did not intend on killing their child when you were babysitting, but that is not going to do much in the way of resurrecting the baby. Thus, considering intentions may not always be fair to those effected by such a crime or action.

Finally, in cases where the intentions of the individual are unclear, a criminal could easily lie about his or her thought process in the moment of the crime. In truth, it is impossible for even the most expert judge to entirely determine the exact thoughts of the accused individual’s mind. One can only speculate about such things. While it is true that a judge could use information including a historical analysis of the person, the circumstances of the case, as well as thorough investigation of the person, the only person who will know the entire truth is the offender themselves. Thus, in some cases such a person could lie about their intentions and if there is not sufficient evidence to argue otherwise, this could lead to an incorrect verdict. Evidence, on the other hand, can never lie. Therefore, when deciding legal responsibility it is better to adhere for the most part to the concrete information at hand.

Ultimately, while a judge should consider intentions, they should not be a major factor in the final judgement process. Unless the intentions are very clear and the person had absolutely no responsibility at all, I think it is best if most judicial decisions regarding responsibility are made based on facts and concrete evidence. The individualistic nature of a persons thoughts makes intentions a very unreliable piece of evidence. Additionally, the consequences remain the same regardless of intent. Although there are cases in which a person should be excused or not punished as severely because they were very obviously unaware of their actions, these cases should be few and far between. Intent will probably always play a role if we are to have an at all sympathetic judicial process, but I believe it should be limited as much as possible.

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One thought on “Questioning the Role of Intent in the Judicial Process

  1. While I do agree that concrete information (evidence, testimony, etc.) lends legal responsibility most of its validity, I don’t think we can undermine the sheer importance of intention in determining responsibility. I would argue that intent is intrinsic to the action(s) it precedes, regardless of it is acknowledged or not. Actions are either intentional or unintentional, both of which possess a degree of intent. Two cases might seem very similar, but they very well could have been brought on by extremely unique / different intents and motivations. Considering intent in these instances allows the cases to be tried individually, which I believe is one of the virtues of our legal system.

    Furthermore, the legal system already adheres to a number of safeguards that protect against the seemingly adverse side effects of considering intent you mention–trial by jury and precedence, for example, exist solely to keep the judicial process unbiased and impartial.

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