Actus reus non facit reum nisi mens sit rea

A few weeks ago the Chicago Tribune ran a story entitled, “What is a Hate Crime?” The story was so bad the public editor condemned it and expressed bafflement that such an experienced reporter could have written it. Aside from the fact that the story didn’t bother to address the legal meaning of the term hate crime, it was premised on the complaints of a Charlie Daniels (yes, that one), a couple of right wing bloggers (known for hyping the false), and various white supremacist groups. They complained that a horrific abduction and murder in the Nashville, Tennessee area should qualify as a hate crime because it was committed by people of a different race from the victim. The story furthered their complaint, pointing out statistics on crimes where the victim is of a different race than the perpetrator.

Ignoring the objections of the public editor, today the Tribune posts an unsigned editorial about the upcoming vote on hate crimes legislation. They write:

>The Tribune carried an interesting story recently about a particularly heinous double murder in Knoxville, Tenn. The two young victims, who were kidnapped, raped and killed, were white. The three men and a woman who stand charged with the crime are black.

>The story posed some difficult questions about how this country deals with crimes that have a racial overtone — when someone of one race kills someone of another race. And it asked the question: What is a hate crime?

>The definitions in federal law and various state laws differ, but generally a hate crime is considered to be any crime that is motivated by bias based on race, religion or other factors. Hate crime laws permit tougher punishment based on the motivation and broader social impact of the offense.

>So did the Knoxville case qualify? “There is absolutely no proof of a hate crime,” said John Gill, a special counsel to the Knox County prosecutor. “It was a terrible crime, a horrendous crime, but race was not a motive.”

>Yet Mary Newsom, the mother of one of the victims, told a Tribune reporter: “If this wasn’t a hate crime, then I don’t know how you would define a hate crime.”

However horrible the criminal act, its horror does not make it a hate crime–pointing that out, as the Tribune ought to know from reading their own public editor (or their mail for that matter) is irrelevant. In addition to this, the editorial makes the two common objections to hate crime legislation–both of them silly in my estimation.

The first, hate crimes legislation is unnecessary:

>But why expand the use of a federal hate crime law?

>Not only are crimes of violence already punishable under state laws, most states also have their own hate crimes statutes. The vast majority of street crime has always been handled by state and local authorities, and nothing suggests they are abdicating that responsibility. It’s telling that only a tiny percentage of existing hate crimes leads to federal indictments.

>The Senate version is called “The Matthew Shepard Act,” after a gay man beaten to death in 1998 in Wyoming. But that case fails to prove the need for an expanded law. His two assailants were not charged with a hate crime, since the state had no such law. They were, however, convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison.

The rarity of the crime has nothing to do with whether or not it should be illegal. Aside from this, the Matthew Shepard case is not exemplary. Not all hate crimes are murders, so sentencing in those cases might not be adequate (in that they wouldn’t involve maximum penalties).

The second objection rests on a sophomoric skepticism about judging mental state:

>Hate crime laws may be justified when the crime has a broad societal impact. A brick through the window of the first black family on a block is more than a prank. But hate crime laws raise concerns when they punish criminals differently not because of what they do, but because of what they think. In the view of Northwestern University law professor Martin Redish, it’s the equivalent of tacking on extra punishment if a crime is meant to promote the cause of communism. Beat a man because he looks rich, or because he’s got a Republican bumper sticker on his car, and there’s no hate crime. Beat him because you think he’s Jewish, or Cuban, or (under this bill) gay, and there is.

This is a bit of a twist on the old argument. But it’s worth pointing out that people get punished for what they think all of the time. It’s almost as if the “guilty mental state,” the mens rea, were the cornerstone of criminal law. So pointing out that you’re punishing someone for what they think doesn’t amount to much. Besides, juries are asked to make all sorts of judgments about knowledge, intent, volition, character, honesty, depravity and much much more (especially when it comes to sentencing).

The twist in this argument, however, consists in its muddying the waters about which groups qualify for protection from hatred–the rich aren’t included, but neither are Civil War reenactors, NASCAR fans, or Trekkies. Perhaps they could petition the government for inclusion.

***Vacation for a week starting tomorrow. Enjoy the archives.

One thought on “Actus reus non facit reum nisi mens sit rea”

Comments are closed.