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Decoding Guilty Minds

43 Pages Posted: 14 Nov 2017 Last revised: 29 Nov 2017

Matthew R. Ginther

Court of Federal Claims - Office of Special Masters

Francis X. Shen

University of Minnesota Law School

Richard J. Bonnie

University of Virginia - School of Law

Morris B. Hoffman

Second Judicial District Court Judge, State of Colorado

Owen D. Jones

Vanderbilt University - Law School & Dept. of Biological Sciences

Kenneth W. Simons

University of California, Irvine School of Law

Date Written: November 11, 2017

Abstract

A central tenet of Anglo-American penal law is that in order for an actor to be found criminally liable, a proscribed act must be accompanied by a guilty mind. While it is easy to understand the importance of this principle in theory, in practice it requires jurors and judges to decide what a person was thinking months or years earlier at the time of the alleged offense, either about the results of his conduct or about some elemental fact (such as whether the briefcase he is carrying contains drugs). Despite the central importance of this task in the administration of criminal justice, there has been very little research investigating how people go about making these decisions, and how these decisions relate to their intuitions about culpability. Understanding the cognitive mechanisms that govern this task is important for the law, not only to explore the possibility of systemic biases and errors in attributions of culpability but also to probe the intuitions that underlie them.

In a set of six exploratory studies reported here, we examine the way in which individuals infer others’ legally relevant mental states about elemental facts, using the framework established over fifty years ago by the Model Penal Code (“MPC”). The widely adopted MPC framework delineates and defines the four now-familiar culpable mental states: purpose, knowledge, recklessness, and negligence. Our studies reveal that with little to no training, jury-eligible Americans can apply the MPC framework in a manner that is largely congruent with the basic assumptions of the MPC’s mental state hierarchy. However, our results also indicate that subjects’ intuitions about the level of culpability warranting criminal punishment diverge significantly from prevailing legal practice; subjects tend to regard recklessness as a sufficient basis for punishment under circumstances where the legislatures and courts tend to require knowledge.

Keywords: Mental states, criminal law, Model Penal Code, MPC, empirical, punishment, sentencing, blame, culpability, mens rea, purposeful, knowing, reckless, negligent, responsibility, crime, criminology, retribution, just deserts, blameworthiness, intentionality, law and psychology, juror decision making

Suggested Citation

Ginther, Matthew R. and Shen, Francis X. and Bonnie, Richard J. and Hoffman, Morris B. and Jones, Owen D. and Simons, Kenneth W., Decoding Guilty Minds (November 11, 2017). Forthcoming in Vanderbilt Law Review (2018); UC Irvine School of Law Research Paper No. 2017-59. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3069599

Matthew Ginther

Court of Federal Claims - Office of Special Masters ( email )

717 Madison Place, NW
Washington, DC 20005
United States

Francis Shen

University of Minnesota Law School ( email )

Minneapolis, MN
United States

Richard Bonnie

University of Virginia - School of Law ( email )

580 Massie Road
Charlottesville, VA 22903
United States

Morris Hoffman

Second Judicial District Court Judge, State of Colorado ( email )

Denver, CO
United States

Owen Jones (Contact Author)

Vanderbilt University - Law School & Dept. of Biological Sciences ( email )

131 21st Avenue South
Nashville, TN 37203-1181
United States

HOME PAGE: http://law.vanderbilt.edu/bio/owen-jones

Kenneth Simons

University of California, Irvine School of Law ( email )

401 E. Peltason Dr.
Room 3800H
Irvine, CA 92697-1000
United States

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