Criminal Defense 101: State of Mind

If you have been accused of a crime in New Jersey, your sentence—or punishment—will take the defendant’s state of mind into account. Two notable exceptions to that rule are in the violation of a statute, and when dealing with a per se crime that does not require evidence of intent.

Working with a New Jersey criminal defense attorney will help craft the arguments regarding intent. For example, what evidence may be excluded as too prejudicial or what may be included as relevant to counter the prosecution’s case?

According to the laws of New Jersey, which have wholly adopted the Model Penal Code, the mental state, or mens rea, of the defendant can range between one of four states. These are listed in a recent article as:

  • “intention” or “purpose,”
  • “knowledge,”
  • “recklessness” (often called “willful blindness”), and
  • “gross (or criminal) negligence.”

A criminal act committed intentionally carries a much more severe penalty than almost any other kind. That’s why criminal defense attorneys will try to argue that a lesser culpability by showing the defendant’s mental state was something less than intentional, with one exception: the mental state of recklessness.

Often, the degree of culpability for a reckless act mirrors the punishment for one committed intentionally.

Why is that? Because the law views reckless acts as those that contain a seed of intent; the intent to turn away from even the smallest degree of care. This argument resonates especially strongly with a murder charge. In New Jersey, there are two main mental states in a homicide: purposeful knowing and in the course of committing a second, underlying felony.

In a recent case, the state of Montana accused a newly-wed wife of murdering her husband by intentionally pushing him from a cliff. The criminal defense attorney in the case argued that his client acted recklessly by ignoring (or being “willfully blind” as the Model Penal Code describes it) the danger inherent in leading her husband atop a dangerous height. The judge in the case rejected the argument, and ruled she acted with intent.

Although a technical argument, the difference between arguing intent and recklessness in a New Jersey murder charge can make an enormous difference to the criminal defendant. Speak to an experienced Freehold criminal defense attorney to discuss the best arguments in handling your criminal defense case.

Author Photo

Anthony J. Vecchio

Anthony’s entire career has been dedicated to defending those accused of crimes, DWI, serious motor vehicle violations, and the rights of victims of crimes and accidents. He has prosecuted, defended, or appealed cases ranging from municipal court matters to more serious crimes including drug offenses and murder. Anthony is passionate about providing personalized, thorough, and effective representation to individuals in crisis.

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