Your Mens Rea Matters
Although the cartoon defendant in this illustration isn't real, the discussion of mens rea is a real concern for us at Humphrey & Associates. Different criminal statutes require the government to prove a defendant acted with a certain mental state, or sometimes the crime can be committed with separate alternative mental states. Sometimes a defendant's mental state matters to culpability, other times to the ultimate penalty in a case.
In criminal law, the prosecution must prove mens rea and actus reus. Mens rea translates as "guilty mind". Essentially, it refers to the mindset of the defendant, at the time the crime was committed. The actus reus of a crime refers to the conduct of the defendant that makes the person guilty of the crime. In all criminal cases, the prosecution must prove both mens rea and actus reus beyond a reasonable doubt.
There are essentially four states of mind in which a crime may be committed: (1) intentionally (specific intent to commit the crime); (2) knowingly or purposely; (3) recklessly; and (4) negligently. (1) Intentionally or with specific intent to commit a crime, requires the government to prove that the defendant had a conscious desire to commit the crime. For example, if a person shoots someone with the specific goal of harming the victim, they are committing the crime with specific criminal intent. (2) Knowingly committing a crime is where the defendant committed some act with knowledge that their actions will cause something to occur, and doesn't seem to care about the harm that may result. For instance, if a person was in a fight and punched their opponent so hard that they suffered a brain bleed and died. The defendant in this scenario may have wished to throw a punch but did not intend for the person to die. The defendant was aware that harm to the victim would be a result of their actions, and is therefore guilty of having criminal knowledge or knowingly committing a crime. (3) Recklessly committing a crime requires the decision to commit a certain act despite knowing about the risks associated with the act. DUI with bodily injury is a prime example. The defendant in a DUI accident did not knowingly cause harm or damage to another's body or property, but they certainly voluntarily drank alcohol and then drove a vehicle while they were unable to safely drive. The drunk driver who hits another car acted recklessly and disregarded the associated risks of drinking and driving. Therefore, we would call this a reckless mens rea. (4) Negligence: A person commits negligence when they fail to meet a reasonable standard of care for the circumstances. Negligence is often a mens rea used in child abuse and neglect cases.
Recently, the Wyoming Supreme Court clarified that attempted aggravated assault under Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 6-2-502(a)(i) is an intentional crime committed with specific intent. Schuerman v. State, 2022 WY 160, ¶ 19 (Wyo. 2022). The elements of regular aggravated assault (not attempted aggravated assault) pursuant to Wyoming Statute § 6-2-502(a)(i) are roughly:
1. On or about (Insert date):
2. In (Insert location) County, Wyoming;
3. The Defendant, (Insert Defendant's name);
4. [Intentionally], [Knowingly], or [Recklessly] under circumstances which showed an extreme indifference to the value of human life.
5. caused serious bodily injury to the victim.
Each of the elements need to be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. Normally, you can commit the crime of aggravated assault in three ways: (1) intentionally; (2) knowingly; and (3) recklessly. Mens rea became an issue in the Schuerman case, as the prosecution charged the defendant with attempted aggravated assault. Id. This presents a problem for cases where the action was not completed, yet the defendant clearly attempted something. Attempting a crime usually requires the accused to specifically intend to commit the crime they are accused of attempting to commit. In other words, you cannot attempt to commit a crime by accident. But what about if you acted recklessly? The Wyoming Supreme Court had previously held a defendant could not recklessly attempt to commit aggravated assault. Kite v. State, 2018 WY 94, ¶ 21, 424 P.3d 255, 262 (Wyo. 2018). The Wyoming Supreme Court wrote in Kite: "It simply makes no sense to say that an individual can specifically intend a further act or consequence through conscious disregard or extreme indifference." Id. ¶ 29, 424 P.3d at 264.
In Schuerman, the defendant's jurors were given this jury instruction containing the following elements:
1. On or about April 17, 2020;
2. In Campbell County, Wyoming;
3. The Defendant; [omitted defendant's name]
4. Intentionally or knowingly;
5. Attempted to cause serious bodily injury to the [Victim's name].
Schuerman v. State, 2022 WY 160 at ¶ 5.
These jury instructions left two separate possible mens reas for the jury to find if they found the defendant guilty. One mens rea, where the prosecution had to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant specifically intended to commit the act of aggravated assault against the victim, and one where the mens rea required only that the defendant commit acts where they were aware that their actions might cause harm. The second mens rea was easier to prove and presented a lower burden on the prosecution. After a jury trial, the defendant was convicted. The jury verdict form included a part for the jury to make a finding as to which of the two possible mens reas they relied on in convicting the defendant. Id. The jury rejected the mens rea of specific intent and instead found that the defendant knowingly attempted to commit aggravated assault.
On appeal, the government asked the Wyoming Supreme Court to recognize the "existence of knowing attempt." Id. at ¶ 17. The defendant asked for the conviction to be reversed on the basis that a defendant cannot "knowingly" commit a specific intent crime. After review of the evidence contained in the record, the jury instructions, and the verdict form, the Wyoming Supreme Court clarified that a defendant convicted of attempted aggravated assault, must commit the crime with an intentional mens rea. Id. at ¶ 19. Any less proof is insufficient to support the conviction.
Although mens rea cases are rare, it is important to acknowledge that the government must prove each and every element of the case. That burden includes the burden to prove mens rea. It should be noted that the attorney in Schuerman raised this issue twice before the district court. That attorney properly objected to the proposed jury instruction. This issue was well preserved for appeal.
It is important to choose an attorney who is experienced in criminal defense, so as not to miss relevant issues that could have been raised in your case. We at Humphrey & Associates are here to help. If you are charged with a crime, call us today!
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