Posted on 12/24/18

Legal TV dramas will often place an emphasis on the motive of the defendant. It will depict a prosecutor who finds a sinister motive in a defendant and uses that to piece together all the evidence and present it to a court. While the reality of criminal trials does involve a defendant’s motive to commit a crime, motive is not as important as it is portrayed on television.

Criminally Liable

To be criminally liable, the prosecution must prove that the defendant committed the criminal act beyond a reasonable doubt. In theory, a jury would hear the evidence and then deliberate whether the evidence presented passes the beyond a reasonable doubt threshold for guilt. The criminal act may have a few or a number of elements that must be satisfied to be a criminal act. There is, however, no requirement that a prosecutor use circumstances to demonstrate a defendant’s motive to trigger criminal liability.

Proving Motive

While proving motive is not a prerequisite or requirement for finding a defendant criminally guilty, it is nonetheless a significant part of a trial. In most cases, a jury will be the trier of fact and will determine guilt or innocence. When arguing in front of a jury, a trial lawyer knows that the rules of the game are different. In contrast to a judge who usually applies a reasoned, logical analysis, juries tend to be more emotional. Consequently, a prosecutor will play on a jury’s emotions in presenting his or her case.

When selecting a jury, it is extremely rare that a lawyer will be selected as part of the panel. The logic is that a lawyer who is also a juror will apply strict reasoned analysis and will be unlikely swayed by emotion. What is more, the lawyers trying the case would be concerned that the other jurors will look to the juror lawyer and will be easily swayed because of that lawyer’s expertise.

When a prosecutor presents a case to a jury, it is important for the prosecutor to communicate with the jury in a way that depicts the defendant as someone motivated to commit a crime. When there is a motive, there is motivation. If a prosecutor can articulate the motive for a crime, the jury will more readily identify with the prosecutor’s narrative.

In response, a defense attorney will then counter that the motive is not there, thereby poking  holes into the prosecution’s case.

Often, a judge will provide jury instructions that emphasize the need to look at the evidence and see whether the evidence shows that the defendant committed the crime beyond a reasonable doubt. The crime, as mentioned, does not require a motive to find guilt. Nonetheless, juries will likely still look to motive. As such, the motive aspect becomes an important piece of the trial because it drives the narrative, though it is not technically needed.

Accused of a crime? Contact the criminal defense firm of Christopher Abel, a board-certified criminal defense attorney.

(image courtesy of Simon Migaj)


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