Complex Beings

In considering the question of legality and wrongful intent, I thought back to some public criminal cases of the last few years. As someone who prizes himself keenly on social media awareness, the elements of social media and the law is a fascinating topic for discussion as it is a relatively new issue. And while there are many positive aspects of social media, it’s hard to forget about scandals like the Rutgers incident in Fall 2010.

To summarize the situation, a New Jersey college student was accused of using his own personal webcam to spy on his gay roommate’s love life. Allegedly, this student recorded footage of his roommate kissing another young man and posted it to Twitter for public scrutiny. The student whose privacy had been invaded a few days later posted a suicide note via Facebook status, and then jumped off of a bridge to his death. The attorney for the student who posted the original video argued that the student did not act out of malicious or anti-gay intent, but out of immaturity. 

This is clearly a very polarizing case, and it is hard to remain without bias with regard to this particular incident. But from the most logical and apathetic part of my mind, it is hard for me to side with the student who posted the video. Now a “dumb college student” is of course entitled to his or her mistakes, but this was a clear violation of personal privacy. Not only did he record the video without asking, in a private location- but he proceeded to save it to his computer, and post it for the public to see. 

This student was found guilty on 15 out of 17 accounts he was initially charged with, and some of the tweets- which I will not repost on this blog- indicate an element of homophobia present in the case, and that was reflected in the ruling. 

Now consider an alternate outcome, where the student had accidentally left his webcam on and saved the file to his computer without knowing. And suppose the student wanted to share a video of his brother’s wedding ceremony, and unknowingly posted the wrong video. If this could be proven, how could they be compared? If he deleted the video within minutes, should he not have been spared? If he made the slightest effort for a sincere apology and empathetic support for his roommate, he would have been judged very differently in the same courtroom.

These two scenarios are significantly different, and the distinction in those outcomes stems from the intent of the wrongdoer. While not all crimes are accidental, humans are logical beings with complex desires and motivations for our actions. Everything we do on a daily basis have a purpose, and that is recognized within the legal system and why these two cases would be treated so differently.

While it is certainly not without its weaknesses, the American justice system is criticized and condemned far more than it is praised. We are lucky to have trials by juries, and a number of safeguards in our own justice system against tyranny and subjectivity, among them being precedence. 

I hold that intent is an important element of the judicial process in many different kinds of criminal cases. Two similar acts can have very different motivations, and they cannot be judged the same way. Whether precedence in similar acts is established, a trial should not be considered without intent. It acknowledges that we are human, and have capacity for desire and motivation not easily definable by a book of laws. We are complex beings, and we must not fail to forget that.





5 thoughts on “Complex Beings

  1. This post makes a great point in that having a trial by jury allows for each case to be judged separately, making precedence simply a guide rather than a definitive determinant of a case. Cases should definitely be judged with intent in mind, as purposefully doing something and accidentally doing something are completely different scenarios. If a person sets out to do something intending to cause harm, he should be punished more severely than someone who accidentally caused harm. In the aforementioned example of the roommate posting on social media about his roommate, it was a purposeful act of malice, rather than an accident. I do not believe that the defense of “immaturity” is one that should be accepted, as it still implies a intended action, and the roommate did not seem to show any remorse at the time of the offending action. Therefore, judging each case on an individual basis guarantees that the individual will be punished not just for the consequences that he has caused, but for the reasoning behind his wrongful actions.

  2. Indeed, we are complex beings, and no trial should be considered without intent. Fortunately, I don’t think too many are! For example, even in cases of seemingly trivial car accidents, lawyers argue one driver intended to either upset the other, intended to speed, etc. Arguing these points successfully is integral to maintaining the integrity of the client, and, subsequently, in winning the case. I could not tell, however, whether your post was a call to action, so to speak. With your conclusion that intent is a necessary component of the judicial process, what do you seek to change about said process, if anything at all? Even in civil cases, intent is (as far as I am aware) a centerpiece of the case. True, one’s “desire and motivation” cannot be neatly summed up into a few paragraphs in a law book, but that’s why we have similarly complex beings — that is, the judge and the jury — that decide our case. While this isn’t a perfect, system I think it has the greatest potential to pursue justice. What else could we do to improve (or perhaps change) the role intent plays in the judicial process?

  3. I would agree that it is important to consider the complexity of human beings when deciding cases–humans can have a variety of motivations and desires, and intent really does matter when it comes down to it in many cases. Just as the webcam case would be different if it hadn’t been malicious, many cases that come to court may be dealing with the same offense but with drastically different levels or kinds of intent. Considering intent is the fairest way to go about deciding these cases, because it attends to them on an individual level and does not generalize them as if they were all the same. Trial by jury is one of the most effective ways to consider intent in the judgement; they are many people, all peers, who can help decide what kind of intent was present and whether or not it is relevant to the facts of the case. We are indeed fortunate to have access to fair trials that are decided by our peers, instead of being pushed through the justice system as if every case for the same offense was internally the same as the next.

  4. It is extremely important to consider intent in any criminal case, certainly, but I think that in some cases it is almost too difficult to truly determine the intent involved in a case. It also can be too easy a way for someone to get themselves out of a conviction, in my opinion. As you said we are complex beings and I think in a way that is why we have a law that is very by the book. A ruling should never have its basis in intent unless that intent is extremely clear and the degree of intent is clear. Consider the case of a murder that occurred in the heat of an argument, a murder that happened a day after said argument, and a murder that occurred a year after the argument. You may say that the first is a crime of passion, with little real intent and therefore should be judged less strictly than the murder a year out. But to what degree should intent factor in? What happens to intent the day after the argument? A week? It is too subjective and difficult to tell for this to be a real basis for adjudication. It is also too easy, as I said, for someone to fake intent. We saw an example of something similar in the Kenneth Bianchi case. If someone had the means to falsely show their intent was minimal, they could easily receive a lesser punishment than what they deserve. While intent is important in determining legal responsibility, it should never be the main or sole factor.

  5. “This student was found guilty on 15 out of 17 accounts he was initially charged with, and some of the tweets- which I will not repost on this blog- indicate an element of homophobia present in the case, and that was reflected in the ruling.”

    I wonder what role this evidence of homophobic motivation played in the ruling. Did the court determine that the student’s perceived homophobia made it more likely that he posted the video out of malice, and so the court felt comfortable basing their ruling on the assumption that he had ill intent? Or did the student receive a harsher punishment because of his homophobia?

    The case would have been much more difficult to parse if the student could make the case that he uploaded the video on accident, but also had those homophobic tweets suggesting malice. I also wonder whether the sentence would have been significantly lighter had his roommate not committed suicide, even if the actions were the same.

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