Posted on 11/13/17

It is well documented that the two components of a criminal act are theactus reus, which is the criminal act, and the mens rea, which is the criminal mind. Both are based on the parameters of the statute. Killing someone can be the actus reus of murder. For mens rea, it depends on whether the statute requires the act be done intentionally, knowingly, etc.

However, it is notable that the law does not consider what a person’s motivation was in committing the crime. A person’s motive to commit an act may have been the best intentions, but that is often irrelevant. The question is whether such action violated the law. Likely, the law does not consider a defendant’s motivation in committing a crime because it wants to remove any gray area when determining a bad act. If motivation was a factor, there can be a discussion that although the act violated the law, perhaps the intention behind the act negates the violating act.

Perhaps another reason why motivation is a non-factor because evaluating a motivation would be based on social context. Criminal law should not be based on social context; it should be based on the letter of the law.

Motivation as a Factor

Often, a criminal act does depend on the motivation of the individual committing an act. For instance, a defendant kills a victim to gain life insurance benefits. In 2011, aBaltimore County, Maryland court sentenced Kevin Pushia to life in prison plus 45 years for murder with the intent to collect life insurance benefits. Pushia befriended Lemeul Wallace, who lived in a group home and was blind. Pushia convinced the Wallace to purchase a life insurance policy for $1.4 million with Pushia as the named beneficiary. Pushia hired another man to kill Wallace, with $50,000 of the life insurance payment to the hitman. The police arrested Pushia after the death of Wallace. Pushia pleaded guilty to insurance fraud and conspiracy to commit murder.

In that instance, the motive to commit murder was important and factored into the defendant’s sentence.

Motive as an Evidentiary Tool

As mentioned, motive is generally not relevant to criminal law. Nonetheless, a prosecutor will often present motive when making a case against a defendant. The idea is that if the defendant was motivated to commit the crime, then it is logical to conclude that the defendant committed the crime. Therefore, the prosecution will often bring in witnesses that the defendant was motivated to commit the crime while the defense will either try to impeach those witnesses or bring in witnesses that contradict the prosecution witnesses.

Moreover, when facing a jury, motive is often a emotional factor that is believed to sway a jury. Studies show that juries, as opposed to judges, tend to be swayed by emotional factors such as love, hate, jealousy, and the like. By proving that the defendant killed his wife because he was jealous of her creates the sense that the defendant probably committed the murder.

Facing criminal charges? Contact the law firm of Christopher Abel, a board-certified criminal defense attorney.

(image courtesy of Scott Webb)


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