Friday, April 26, 2013

Criminal Law: Back to the Basics in the U.S. Supreme Court Case Metrish v. Lancaster: What is Mens Rea? and Who Defines It? What About Retroactive Denials of Rights?

Oral argument on Metrish v. Lancaster was just held, a Supreme Court case of substantial interest to criminal law circles, primarily involving the issue of mens rea, i.e. "intent" as a material element of crimes.

See Lyle Denniston at SCOTUSblog in Argument recap: Who makes law?

The case looks simple at first glance, but is in fact hard as a matter of law, involving the core concept of culpability, which is at the root of nearly all criminal laws -- asking who decides, and when, that culpability exists.

One of the first things taught to every new student at law school is the doctrine of mens rea in Criminal Law, found in the Latin phrase
actus non facit reum nisi mens sit rea,
which has been translated as:
the act is not culpable unless the mind is guilty.

At common law, criminal guilt or innocence depended not only on whether the accused committed the crime (actus reus) but also on whether the accused intended to commit the crime (mens rea).

In modern law, mens rea as a "mental state" is a critical element in the prosecution of crimes, where the material element of intent, i.e. the state of mind of the accused, distinguishes, for example, premeditated first degree murder from the charge of lesser crimes such as second degree murder or voluntary and involuntary manslaughter.

Some jurisdictions permit a defense of insanity, properly proven, and nothing inbetween to a finding of full intent as the presumed state of mind for a perpetrated crime. Whether that either/or approach is constitutional?

A complete lack of intent, on the other hand, can exculpate a perpetrator, as especially Justice Scalia should know. Scalia in the past was at least a one-time hunting partner of former U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney, who some years ago was involved in the non-fatal accidental shooting of attorney Harry Whittington during a hunting expedition. Cheney was exculpated by the fact that he did not intend to shoot his hunting partner but was in fact shooting at quail. It was accepted to be an accident, but could have a been a crime if the shooting had been proven purposeful, or even reckless. Mens rea decided.

The mens rea claim in the case of Metrish v. Lancaster involves a former Detroit police officer accused of murdering his girlfriend. The accused tried to raise the defense that he suffered from "diminished capacity" in committing the offense, a defense recognized in the State of Michigan 40 years ago, and perhaps also at the time of the act, but since removed, either because of new state laws that left out the defense, or because of a later state court decision that negated the defense. See Kimberly Reed Thompson, The Untimely Death of Michigan's Diminished Capacity Defense. Could that defense be denied retroactively to the accused in this case?

The questions that the Supreme Court must answer here are:
DECISION BELOW: 683 F.3d 740

1. Whether the Michigan Supreme Court's recognition that a state statute abolished the long-maligned diminished-capacity defense was an "unexpected and indefensible" change in a common-law doctrine of criminal law under this Court's retroactivity jurisprudence.
See Rogers v. Tennessee, 532 U.S. 451 (2001).

2. Whether the Michigan Court of Appeals' retroactive application of the Michigan Supreme Court's decision was "so lacking in justification that there was an error well understood and comprehended in existing law beyond any possibility for fairminded disagreement" so as to justify habeas relief.
Harrington v. Richter, 131 S. Ct. 770, 786-87 (2011).

CERT. GRANTED 1/18/2013"
It would seem to us that the defense was still available to the accused in this case at the time of the act, since such a right can arguably not be denied retroactively and still make claim to be constitutional.

This may seem like it gives advantage to a criminal perpetrator, but the principle of not permitting retroactive denials of rights is more important for the law and citizenry in general than the end result in any one given case.

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