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Legalese 101: Mens Rea, Latin for a Guilty Mind

By Stephanie Rabiner, Esq. | Last updated on

We here at FindLaw know that legal jargon can be confusing. We hear people misusing legal words and phrases all the time. So we've decided to help you better understand all the legal phrases tossed around on Law & Order. Here is a new educational series we like to call FindLaw's Legalese 101.

It's a term thrown around in movies like Legally Blonde, but the fact is that even fake Harvard Law students aren't exactly sure what mens rea really means.

And though the translation above is technically correct, the definition of mens rea is a lot more subtle than it seems to suggest.

Mens rea, which is perhaps the most important aspect of criminal law, refers to a defendant's state of mind while engaged in an action that constitutes the crime. In other words, what was the defendant thinking during the crime, and what was his motivation for committing it.

The reason attorneys put so much emphasis on mens rea is because it can mean the difference between being charged with first degree murder and manslaughter, and may even negate criminal charges altogether.

For example, criminal statutes differentiate between a person who acts negligently, recklessly, knowingly and intentionally.

The mens rea required for murder is usually knowingly or intentionally, whereas manslaughter only requires a showing that a defendant acted with negligence or recklessness.

So, if there isn't mens rea, there well not be a conviction. Because if enough evidence to prove that a defendant acted intentionally, the crime make be downgraded to manslaughter. And if there isn't enough evidence of negligence or recklessness, there may be no crime at all.

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