Criminal Intent – Definition, Overview and Pie

Article by: Scott Hall
            “Then, for no reason whatsoever, they …… me”, this statement is a recipe for discovery, where our filling (fill in the blank) needs something to make the best pie with our given ingredients, that of course would be our top crust, intent.  I first want to apologize for the pie scenario (must be a summer thing) but want to draw attention to the word, Intent.  In the fields of Social Science and Criminology, this word carries a heavy burden, the burden of proving what someone may have: 1 – been thinking, and / or 2 – encountered during the commission of a criminal or illegal act.  A loose legal definition of “criminal intent” is to do something wrong or something that is forbidden by law.  In this article, we will explore the concept behind criminal intent, including some case law examples, with the intent of maybe being able to have a slice of pie when done.

            In criminal study, intent is the mind set of carrying out the act or that “point of no return” where the act is in the process of becoming illegal, a basic outline of the mental process involved.  Sometimes this is used in the sense of “Mens Rea” in regards to the guilt involved either by direct thought process or indirect action.  For example:  Subject A intends to kill Subject B and in the process “accidentally” kills a third Subject C, under a doctrine known as the Felony Murder Doctrine, Subject A’s criminal intent will also transfer over to Subject C which would characterize the homicide as murder (State vs. Julius, 185 W. Va., 422, 431  1991).  In looser terms, the person who pulled the trigger may not have wanted the third party to become hurt, but since the intent was to kill anyway, the charge will be amended to murder due to the original action (intent) committed by the suspect, so keep those eyes and reflexes in check criminals, could cost you a death penalty or life sentence.

            December 2004, in an online article from the Seattle Weekly, suspect Anthony Whitfield, 32 years old, received his sentence for 17 counts of assault, worst case in the area in decades.  The specific crime, having unprotected sex while being infected with HIV, with a minimum of 17 women, possibly as many as 40 and not informing them of his condition.  Bouncing from woman to woman, getting married, having girlfriends, fathering kids and not telling a soul that since 1992, he had been stricken with this disease.  A methamphetamine addict who spread this to several women, one of which tested positive for AIDS almost immediately and only the third conviction of its type in Washington (state) since 1997 when the then Governor made this type of deliberate exposure a Class A felony.
            In essence, what Mr. Whitfield was convicted of, probably should have been reclassified into something other than assault, as according to the article, the thing this man intended was satisfaction of a personal nature, which given a bit of critical thought, most would use measures to prevent the spread or at least inform the person they are with, but this man may as well as handed a gun to these women and said, keep pulling the trigger till something happens.  It is important to note, that specifically what the prosecutors had to prove was, “intent to do great bodily harm”, the requirements for first degree assault in this case and the total sentence range: 130-190 years in prison for the convicted Mr. Whitfield, who we hope tells his cell mates, staff, warden and visitors, I pray nothing heinous befouls the staff, inmates or visitors of that prison due to this type of dangerous attitude.

            On the other side of our looking glass, sits a term known as “involuntary manslaughter” a charge where intent does not have to be present to convict, because malice does not have to exist for this to happen, however prosecutors still need to prove it happened as a result of the act of the person (Actus Reus).  That is the simplified version and does not include that the act may have been reckless in nature, obviously dangerous or must have known the act would be a threat to the lives of other persons, in essence almost forcing the prosecution or investigators to question the person’s intent.  Laws and guidelines in defining this particular crime vary from state to state, including some that do not use that terminology at all and generally determine by what degree the person guilty is based on the level of recklessness involved, but in all cases the prosecution must prove that somehow the defendant was responsible for the death.

            There are a couple “hot button” items that can be associated with this type of crime such as using the “it was in self defense” claim and some states will allow this defense, if the accused can prove their sense of protecting self and others from imminent danger took over and they acted with an appropriate amount of force given the circumstances.  A “text book” example of this type of defense would be if someone was to invade our homes or workplaces, we discover them and fatally stab them as they point and aim a gun toward us, thus self defense of our lives due to immediate danger.  Another would be, a welder is working on a project that causes a hot piece of metal to pop, sending the projectile into another layperson thus killing them, and this type of “involuntary” approach would be hard to prove as intentional, thus allowing the person to go unscathed with any charges.  As one can see, circumstance, action and deductive reasoning all have a partial role in intent.

            In conclusion, Actus Reus, Mens Rea and Intent all fall into similar genres in the realms of criminal justice.  One’s mental state, whether intended or not can be considered in charges that are much harsher, if one is not careful in committing their act.  Several cases over the years and news stories to support those acts are prevalent and pertinent examples of how Intent may be viewed, including sexually transmitted diseases that could pose bodily harm.  Law enforcement knowledge of crimes is every bit as important as the prosecutor’s wisdom in being able to convict the guilty, protect the innocent and uphold the law. With this expanded knowledge now at rest, we can go and have our intended piece of pie, as stated in Men in Black 3, “all problems can be solved, with the help of a good piece of pie.”

References, Case Examples and Related notes:        

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