What is Mens Rea?

by tylercook on March 2, 2013

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The basic law dictionary definition of mens rea is the mental component of criminal liability. In order to be guilty of most crimes, a defendant must have committed the criminal act in a certain mental state, the mens rea.

Brief History of the Concept of Mens Rea:

An explanation of the term mens rea is found in the writings of Edward Coke, an English jurist. He explained the idea by saying “an act does not make a person guilty unless their mind is also guilty.” A prosecutor, in the event of a criminal wrongdoing, must show beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant actively and knowingly committed a crime that injured the victim or their property.

The modern version of mens rea was not always a part of the legal system. During the times of early Germanic Tribes, criminals were liable for their crimes, without regard to their intent or culpability. Gradually mens rea began to be used, as tort law and criminal law became separated. Compensation to victims of crime became distinguishable from delegating punishment. The idea became so popular that the person is not guilty unless the mind is also.

Christian ideas had some influence on the evolution of mens rea, but its development seems to cross a number of cultures that didn’t have Christian influences. A number of advancing cultures refined the concept of the importance of “the state of mind” of a criminal at the time of wrongdoing.

Modern Criminal Mens Rea:

The concept of mens rea became more clearly defined with the 1962 Model Penal Code (MPC). This document states that a crime must be committed willfully, knowing what the result would be, done in a reckless way, and without any concern for the safety and well-being of the victim. These circumstances constitute an intentional crime. “Every crime in court has two factors: the actus reus, the actual criminal act, and mens rea, the intent to commit that act. Prosecutors must prove both of these conditions existed to win a conviction.”

Determining Culpability

Mens rea is the state of mind of the defendant at the time of the crime. Usually the culpability of crimes is part of the criminal statutes. Culpability is usually one of the following: intentional, knowing, reckless or negligent, depending on the specific crime. In most cases, defendants are aware of what their state of mind was at the time they committed the crime, but the Fifth Amendment gives the defendant the choice of whether to testify. Almost always, it’s up to the prosecutor to use whatever means he can to prove what the mens rea of the defendant was at the time of the crime. Often, it’s not an easy task to accomplish.

Mens rea has been a part of the legal systems of many cultures for a long time. The concept has gradually evolved overtime and changes in the modern era have refined and clarified the concept. It is essential toS society’s best interests to protect the accused until proven guilty beyond a shadow of doubt.


This piece was composed by Gerald Frampton, a freelance writer who focuses on law, legal reform, the legal profession, politics and other important topics. Legal needs come in various forms and shapes; those with Personal Injury needs should always contact a firm with substantial experience in this area.




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