Means, motive and opportunity: How important are they?

On Behalf of | Mar 5, 2023 | Criminal Defense |

You’ve probably heard the phrase “means, motive and opportunity” applied to one criminal case or another – if only on television shows.

Unfortunately, those shows often confuse people about the real criminal law process. It may surprise you to realize that prosecutors aren’t always required to prove a defendant’s motive in order to secure a conviction. Why is motive so often brought up in trials in the first place? There are a couple of reasons. Here’s what you should know.

Motive can speak to mens rea

A defendant’s “mens rea” is their state of mind at the time of the alleged crime. Many crimes have some element of intent involved, meaning that the prosecution has to prove that it wasn’t accidental. This is different than motive, but motive can show a judge or jury that a defendant likely did act intentionally.

For example, imagine you hit and injured your neighbor with your car. You claim that your foot slipped off the brake and it was an accident. Your neighbor and the police claim you acted intentionally and point to an ongoing and bitter dispute over your property line as a motive.

It’s human nature to want crimes to make sense

Finally, motive can matter a lot to juries. Juries are comprised of ordinary people, and people like things to make sense. While it’s entirely true that people do bad things for no reason at all, people often have a hard time thinking that an affluent housewife murdered their spouse out of the blue, or that a trusted employee suddenly intentionally stole from their employer after years of loyal service.

If the prosecution can point to the housewife’s anger over her spouse’s newly-discovered affair with a younger woman as a motive for the violence or the employee’s secret drug addiction as a motive for the theft, the jury may have an easier time feeling that the prosecution showed the requisite intent for the crime.

In short, motive is and isn’t important to the prosecution’s case. By learning more about how the legal system works, you can better participate in your own defense.