There are as many views on the mens rea of murder as there are cases. The last 40 years has witnessed a said inability of the courts to sort it out coherently and precisely.
Mens Rea, or “guilty mind,” marks a central distinguishing feature of criminal law. An injury caused without mens rea might be grounds for civil liability but typically not for criminal. Criminal liability requires not only causing a prohibited harm or evil -- the “actus reus” of an offense -- but also a particular state of mind with regard to causing that harm or evil. For a phrase so central to criminal law, “mens rea” suffers from a surprising degree of confusion in its meaning. One source of confusion arises from the two distinct ways in which the phrase is used, in a broad sense and in a narrow sense. In its broad sense, “mens rea” is synonymous with a person’s blameworthiness, or more precisely, those conditions that make a person’s violation sufficiently blameworthy to merit the condemnation of criminal conviction. In this broad sense, the phrase includes all criminal law doctrines of blameworthiness -- mental requirements of an offense as well as excuse defenses such as insanity, immaturity, and duress, to name a few. This was a frequent usage of “mens rea” at common law. It remains common among non-legal disciplines such as philosophy and psychology, perhaps because it captures in a single phrase criminal law’s focus on personal culpability. As noted by the authors of Smith & Hogan 12th Edition:
The literal meaning of ‘mens rea’- ‘a guilty mind’- is misleading unless it is kept in mind that we are concerned with legal not moral guilt. Mens rea is the mental element required by the definition of the particular crime- typically, intention to cause the actus reus of that crime, or recklessness whether it be caused. The modern meaning of mens rea, and the one common in legal usage today, is narrower: Mens rea describes the state of mind or inattention that, together with its...
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