What Juror Confusion Over Terms Can Mean in a Murder Case

When a jury considers guilt in a criminal case, it also is asked to consider the intent of the person who committed the crime. Did the person intend to do wrong or cause harm or was the result accidental? The question of intent is significant when it comes to sentencing, especially in criminal cases involving violent crimes like murder.

The courts punish purposeful crimes more severely than negligent crimes. The difference between first-degree murder (purposeful homicide) and manslaughter (reckless or negligent homicide) can be many years added to a prison sentence.

The Model Penal Code, which is used in most states, defines four “mental states” in terms of intent. Jurors are asked to determine if the person acted in a manner that was purposeful, knowing, reckless or negligent. These are defined as:

  • Purposeful: when a person acts purposely to cause a result (in this case, a crime)
  • Knowing: when a person acts knowing that the action will most likely cause the result
  • Reckless: when a person acts with conscious disregard of the substantial and unjustifiable risk that his conduct will cause the result
  • Negligent: when a person acts in a in a manner that he should but may not recognize as a substantial and unjustifiable risk of causing a certain result

(A person might also be found to be blameless if there was no intent and no significant risk. This might be the finding in a case involving a truly accidental death.)

Does the average juror understand what each of those terms means? That is the question a group of law professors and psychology professors considered in a recent study entitled “Sorting Guilty Minds.” Results from the research are both good and bad.

Even without being told the definition of each term, most jurors were able to distinguish between purposeful, negligent and blameless. But they could not reliably distinguish between knowing and reckless misconduct. The distinctions they made were arbitrary. And even when instructed on the differences between the two terms, the research subjects did no better. In fact, they often gave harsher punishment for reckless conduct than for knowing conduct.

The authors of the study say the inability to distinguish between knowing and reckless conduct suggests that reform is needed, perhaps in the form of improved jury instruction, a redefinition of the categories, or abandoning one of the categories entirely, especially in homicide cases.

Source: “Sorting Guilty Minds,” November 14, 2011.

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