Although a "guilty" or "not guilty" verdict provides a binary closure to criminal trials, there are often different degrees of guilt associated with a crime. Different degrees of guilt may apply to a criminal case due to the facts and circumstances surrounding it.
For instance, suppose someone drives their partner to the hospital because of a medical emergency. The driver exceeds the speed limit due to nervous energy and the circumstances. The driver causes an accident due to this recklessness. While the driver doesn't dispute their guilt, their criminal prosecution may call for nuance in how the court handles it.
This article summarizes the concept of guilt and how prosecutors prove guilt. It then discusses a case demonstrating how a defendant's intent and mental state may affect their criminal case. Finally, it discusses the historical background of why the criminal justice system considers these nuances in criminal proceedings.
What Is Guilt?
In criminal law, guilt may refer to the fact that one committed a crime. A guilty finding, in criminal law, means that a court or jury has found evidence, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the defendant committed the crime they are charged with. It can also refer to the plea a defendant makes if they wish to admit to committing the crime they are charged with.
The prosecution has the burden of proof in a criminal trial. This means the prosecution must prove the defendant's guilt. The burden of proof in a criminal trial is beyond a reasonable doubt.
The prosecution may offer evidence to the judge or jury (the trier of fact) to prove guilt. The evidence goes toward establishing the elements of the defendant's criminal charges.
For example, suppose the government charges a defendant with burglary. At the criminal trial, the prosecution must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant:
- Unlawfully entered a building or structure; and
- Intended to commit a crime inside the building or structure
The prosecution may, for example, submit video footage of the defendant breaking into the building and stealing things from it to prove guilt.
Alternatively, they may call an eyewitness to testify against the defendant. Or the defendant may admit they broke in and enter a guilty plea.
The trier of fact determines whether the evidence proves guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. They may return a guilty verdict if they believe the prosecution met its burden of proof. The defendant may receive an acquittal if the prosecution doesn't meet their burden.
In a civil case, the standard of proof is lower than beyond a reasonable doubt. In some cases, the standard of proof may be a preponderance of the evidence. This requires the plaintiff to prove that each element of their claim more than likely occurred.
Degrees of Crime
Many states separate a single criminal act into different classifications or degrees. For example, Minnesota provides the following charges for a single assault charge:
Generally, states make these distinctions based on a crime's severity. For example, using a deadly weapon in the commission of an assault often elevates it to a more serious criminal offense. Similarly, committing an assault against a law enforcement officer or a minor may raise a crime from a misdemeanor to a felony.
Each classification includes different elements. The prosecution must prove the specific elements of the charged crime to obtain a guilty verdict. So, the different degrees translate to various levels of guilt.
State laws may differ significantly from one another. But generally, first-degree violent crimes carry greater penalties and jail time than second-degree versions of the same crime, and so on.
Different Degrees of Guilt and The 'Nanny Case'
A 1998 case showcased the different degrees of guilt related to murder charges. The “Nanny Case" demonstrates the different levels of culpability and guilt.
In 1996, a family hired an 18-year-old au pair to care for their toddler. In early 1997, the au pair allegedly violently shook the toddler and slammed him against the floor. The child died days afterward.
There was little doubt the au pair caused the toddler's death. The more difficult question was how culpable the au pair was regarding his death. Specifically, the prosecution had to prove what her mental state was during the 1997 incident.
For the jury to convict the au pair of first-degree murder, the prosecution needed to prove that she acted with “malice aforethought" (or premeditation). To secure a second-degree murder conviction, the prosecution had to prove she acted with malicious disregard for human life and that her acts caused the child's death.
At the jury trial, the judge instructed the jury on the elements of first-degree and second-degree murder. The government wanted the judge to instruct the jury as to involuntary manslaughter. But as part of her defense strategy, the au pair did not. Involuntary manslaughter is a lesser-included offense of second-degree murder.
The judge did not instruct the jury on involuntary manslaughter. The jury convicted the woman of second-degree murder. The judge imposed the crime's mandatory life sentence.
Following the conviction, the au pair filed a motion for post-judgment relief. The judge used his authority to reduce her second-degree murder conviction to involuntary manslaughter. In his opinion, the evidence did not support a second-degree murder conviction. The judge described his reasoning as follows:
In total, the evidence showed the au pair's actions were “characterized by confusion, inexperience, frustration, immaturity, and some anger, but not malice (in the legal sense) supporting a conviction for second-degree murder."
The jury's verdict was not consistent with similar convictions from similar cases (precedent).
The judge noted evidence suggesting the child had a preexisting skull fracture and blood clot. He opined that the au pair's battery of the child may have caused his death by causing the clot to rebleed. But she may not have had any malice to kill the child. Instead, the battery may have aggravated the preexisting condition.
The judge also reduced her sentence from life imprisonment to 279 days. The appellate court affirmed the judge's decision.
Takeaways - Mens Rea and Defendant's Mental State
The Nanny Case shows how a defendant's mental state affects their guilt. The defendant's mental state is known as “mens rea" in criminal law. Mens rea encompasses the following:
- The defendant's state of mind; and
- The defendant's criminal intent when they commit an illegal act
As the Nanny Case demonstrates, a defendant's mental state plays a critical role in their case. The jury concluded the au pair acted with malicious disregard for human life and convicted her of second-degree murder. The judge, on the other hand, thought she acted without malice. He vacated her murder conviction and reduced her sentence accordingly. The judge's decision prevented her from spending the rest of her life in prison.
The prosecution's job is to prove the defendant's mental state and intent. In a murder case, whether a defendant acted with malice or reckless indifference to human life matters significantly. It could make the difference between a conviction for murder or manslaughter. For more information about mens rea, browse FindLaw's Mens Rea article.
Do the Defendant's Actions Fit the Crime?
The criminal justice system carefully defines crimes and criminal charges. Courts only sentence criminal defendants to specific criminal penalties and jail time based on their particular charges. Everyone on trial for criminal charges knows precisely what the prosecutor must prove. Defendants are also aware of which defenses are available to them.
These strict standards prevent the state from imprisoning people based on vague standards and arguments. It's essential defendants know their charges and how to defend themselves.
Understanding English common law provides context as to why the United States has such a detailed criminal justice system.
Different Degrees of Guilt, English Law, and Precedence
In old England, getting in trouble with the law was easy. The general public only had a few main rules to live by—essentially, do not anger the church or nobility. If you happened to get on their wrong side, you could expect severe punishment.
Changes in the 1200s ushered in more well-defined laws. England also instituted a system of judges and juries around this time. Even with a new justice system, severe punishments remained, including death or relinquishing personal property.
As time passed and cases continued to go to the courts, judges, and juries, the system of precedence took hold. Generally, precedence means one court follows what another court did previously. So, if a court decided a case, and then a similar issue arose, the court would judge the current case based on how it resolved the previous case.
Precedence only applies to nearly identical cases. Attorneys and judges look closely at each case's facts and try to distinguish them for their client's benefit. As different factual situations emerge, they demand different judgments and verdicts. So, the law continues to change in a precedence-based judicial system.
The notion of "mitigating circumstances" emerged from English common law. Mitigating circumstances refers to certain factors that may lower a punishment. Such circumstances may lessen a defendant's culpability or guilt for a criminal act. Mitigating circumstances are the opposite of aggravating factors.
Suppose a person's only option to feed their family is to steal food. In ancient England, kings or nobles often sentenced thieves to death. The reason for the theft generally did not matter.
As the law changed, courts started considering other facts. In the example above, the court may look at why the individual stole food. If the judge could define the person's crime as something other than theft, the person may escape a death sentence.
Now, consider this example—and thousands of other court judgments—repeated over hundreds of years. Judges and attorneys carved out new exceptions to existing law. Precedence defined new elements for new crimes. This, in turn, creates differing levels of criminality.
Today, the trier of fact judges a criminal act based on the crime's specific facts. This allows the trier of fact, often a jury, to consider nuance in their verdict. For example, a jury may consider that a defendant was acting out of necessity when they committed the alleged crime. They may also consider that the defendant atoned for the error of their ways through their subsequent actions. The trier of fact may consider such factors as they reach their verdict.
Different Degrees of Guilt and Their Basis in the Facts
The Nanny Case shows that the different facts of a situation can lead to a different definition of the crime. The jury defined the au pair's crime as second-degree murder. The judge defined it as manslaughter instead. In old England, the crown would have likely executed her—that was the prescribed punishment for causing the death of another.
Precedence has developed criminal law in the United States. Courts and juries may consider nuances that allow the degree of guilt to fit the crime committed. Defining a crime in a particular light enables prosecutors, judges, and juries to insert leniency into a criminal prosecution. In theory, this provides a more just legal system.
Still, there was pushback to this trend. For instance, many drug crimes carry mandatory minimum sentences. Mandatory sentences do not allow judges to fit an offense to the criminal. The law takes that decision out of their hands.
Do You Have a Pending Criminal Case? Get Professional Help Today
Mitigating circumstances, degrees of guilt, and precedence are complex concepts. If you have questions, consider contacting a criminal defense attorney. An experienced criminal defense lawyer can provide you with crucial legal advice about the following:
If you're facing criminal charges, don't hesitate to contact a criminal defense attorney near you.