CrimProf Blog

Editor: Kevin Cole
Univ. of San Diego School of Law

Friday, May 16, 2014

Ginther et al. on The Language of Mens Rea

Matthew R. Ginther Francis X. Shen Richard J. Bonnie Morris B. Hoffman Owen D. JonesRene Marois and Kenneth W. Simons (Vanderbilt University - Law School , University of Minnesota Law School , University of Virginia - School of Law , Second Judicial District Court Judge, State of Colorado , Vanderbilt University - Law School & Dept. of Biological Sciences , Vanderbilt University - Department of Psychology Center for Integrative and Cognitive Neuroscience and Boston University - School of Law) have posted The Language of Mens Rea (Vanderbilt Law Review, Vol. 67, No. 5, 2014) on SSRN. Here is the abstract:

This article answers two key questions. First: Do jurors understand and apply the criminal mental state categories the way that the widely influential Model Penal Code (MPC) assumes? Second: If not, what can be done about it? 

In prior work we challenged numerous assumptions underlying the use of the MPC mental state architecture, which divides guilty minds into four kinds: purposeful, knowing, reckless, and negligent. Our experiments showed that subjects had profound difficulty categorizing some of the mental states, particularly recklessness. And, when asked to punish, subjects punished knowing crimes and reckless crimes indistinguishably. (“Sorting Guilty Minds,” 86 NYU Law Review 1306 (2011) at 

The new experiments we describe here extend those prior findings in important ways.

For example, we reveal the degree to which a person’s ability to grasp and apply the MPC mental states is susceptible to variations in the language used to define and communicate them. Specifically, our results demonstrate that exactly how the legal system communicates the mens rea criteria is surprisingly crucial. 

The extreme sensitivity of subjects to the language of mens rea may have troubling implications for past defendants, as well as for future ones. Because even small changes in phrasing can produce significant differences in juror evaluation of criminal cases, substantial miscarriages of justice may ensue. Our results consequently suggest the need for a critical reexamination of the substantial divide between the expectations and assumptions of the MPC, on one hand, and empirical reality, on the other. This divide is especially meaningful and worrisome given the unparalleled influence of the MPC in our state and federal criminal codes.

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