Overview of Mens Rea

United States v. Cordoba-Kincapie

United States District Court, E.D. New York, 1993. 825 F. Supp. 485.


This case is edited in such as way as to list no parties, no facts, and no analysis. Instead, we learn about what mens rea is and how it has developed over time.

Mens rea is a concept that looks into the mind of a criminal. The term means “a guilty mind; a guilty or wrongful purpose; a criminal intent.” Criminal punishment has developed much over time. From the Middle Ages where every act was punished to today, where we consider the intentions of criminal to determine culpability.

Regina v. Cunningham

Court of Criminal Appeal, 1957. 41 Crime. App. 155, 2 Q.B. 396, 2 All Eng. Rep. 412.

Cunningham is the defendant and Regina is the prosecutor. The defendant was convicted of a crime against the Offenses against the Person Act, 1861 Section 23. He appealed.

Note that this is the Queen’s bench. Counsel works differently in England. Although there is reference to a jury, much of these decisions are made by a judge.


Did the judge properly instruct jury on “maliciously”? Was the defendant’s actions malicious?

  • Were his actions reckless?


A person violates the state if he commits an unlawfully and malicious act that endangers the life of another. Unlawful is not an issue here, so we only look at malicious.

Malicious requires:

  1. Intent OR
  2. Recklessness (i.e. he foresaw the that a harm could happen and acted anyways).


There was no malice here. Therefore, there can be no conviction.


Defendant was about to move into the apartment next to his soon-to-be in-laws, which was vacant. He stole the gas meter and sold it for a few shillings. However, the removal of the meter caused a gas leak which endangered the life of his soon-to-be mother-in-law.


His action was unlawful, but for the statute to be met, his actions needed to be malicious. The trial court defined malicious to have the broad definition of mens rea to mean “wicked”. If his actions were “wicked” then he was guilty of malice. Here, the court disagrees. They say that it should be left to decide whether there was “intent” or “recklessness” when it came to injuring Mrs. Wade. He did not intend to hurt her. Further he did NOT foresee that the removal of the gas meter might cause injury to someone but removed it anyways. Therefore, there is no restlessness and he cannot be found guilty.


The trial court used a broad definition of mens rea to include anything that was “wicked”. Instead, the appellate court used a narrower definition of mens rea to include intent or recklessness. One could say that this is a difference between “tragedy and sin”.

Additional Notes

Mens Rea in this statute is “maliciously”

Actus Reas in this statute is everything else.

The court takes a new approach to Mens Rea here. They say that the Mens Rea needs to be directly related to the Actus Reas. 

Issues with proving culpability


People v. Conley

Illinois Appellate Court, 1989. 187 Ill. App. 3d 234, 134 Ill. Dec. 855, 543 N.E.2d 138.

Conley is the defendant and appellant in this case. He lost in the trial court and was convicted of aggravated battery as defined in the Illinois Criminal Code of 1961 Section 12-4(a).


Did he have intent?


“A person who, in committing a battery, internally or knowingly causes great bodily harm, or permanent disability or disfigurement commits aggravated battery.”

Intent means that the aggressor seeks to accomplish a result and engage in a particular conduct.


The facts of the case say that there was intent. The defendant committed aggravated battery.


There was a group of people at a party who were accused of saying derogatory things. That group left the party which was met by another group among which was the defendant. The defendant approached one of the group members, swung a wine bottle at him (who ducked) and struck Sean causing several injuries to his jaw.


The defendant argues that there was no permanent damage. The court disagrees. More at issue is whether or not there was intent to cause permanent damage.

This is a challenge between the intent to strike and the intent to cause damage. Here, the defendant argues that he did not intent to cause permanent damage and therefore cannot be guilty. However, the court disagrees. Because of the surrounding circumstances, the defendant’s words, the weapon used, and the force applied, he can be found guilty of intent to cause damage.


In other words, we can use the totality of the circumstances to determine whether or not there was intent, even if the action was not done explicitly.

Additional Notes

The mens rea in this statute is “Intentionally or knowingly

The acts reus part of this statute is “great bodily harm or disability/disfigurement

There is a difference between intent and knowledge is where intent has a “conscious objective” and knowledge is “conscious aware.

On a separate note, this is an example of “transferred intent.” When A tries to hit B but hits C, then the intent to hit B is transferred to C. However there are some complications in this doctrine.

Three definitions of Specific intent
  1. Is when the mens rea of the offense is expressly set out in the definition of a crime (i.e. intentionally destroying property
  2. Crimes which have a mens rea of “intent” or “knowledge” – the higher or more culpable mens reas (i.e. intentional murder)
  3. Special mental element in addition to mental state required as to the harm proscribed by the statute (i.e. knowing possession of marijuana with the intent to sell)

“Knowledge” of Attendant Circumstances (The “Willful Blindness” Problem)

State v. Nations

Missouri Court of Appeals, Eastern District, 1984. 676 S.W.2d 282.

Nations is the defendant. Charged and convicted with endangering the welfare of a child “less than seventeen years old.,” §568.050 RSMo 1978. Appeals


Did the defendant have “knowledge” that the child was a minor?


Model Penal Code says that knowledge encompasses actual knowledge (“I knew she wasn’t 18) and willful blindness (“Even though I didn’t know whether she was 18 or not, there was a high probability that she wasn’t”)

However, Missouri code only includes actual knowledge.


Even though there is evidence that it is highly probable that the defendant knew, there is no actual knowledge. Therefore, judgement reversed.


Defendant is a club owner. Police arrived, noticed a young “dancer”, and asked for the age of the girl. The defendant said that she was over 18 and had asked for identification. The officer found no identification on the girl. The girl and defendant both testified that she was on her way to get identification when she was stopped by the police.


There is a difference between actual knowledge and willful blindness. The model penal code encompasses both, but the Missouri code explicitly excludes willful blindness. Therefore, the state must prove actual knowledge. The facts presented at trial do not find that the defendant knew of the age of the child. Thus, there can be no action taken against them.

The court emphasizes the similarities between intent (knowledge) and recklessness (willful blindness). Although it was highly probably that she knew the age of the girl but did not stop it (recklessness), she did not have actual knowledge (intent).


Additional Notes

The mens rea here is “recklessness”. She is not actually aware, so there is no mens rea for “knowing”.

Additional Notes

Mens Rea allows us to punish. This is how we determine whether punishment is morally justified.


The content contained in this article may contain inaccuracies and is not intended to reflect the opinions, views, beliefs, or practices of any academic professor or publication. Instead, this content is a reflection on the author’s understanding of the law and legal practices.

Categories: 1L Fall, Criminal Law

Will Laursen

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