For the most part, the defendants I examine have been accused of committing bad acts, like taking a life. To be found blameworthy of a crime, a defendant’s behavior must be accompanied by a guilty state of mind. In legal lingo, it’s referred to as the mens rea portion of a crime: the malicious intent to knowingly behave unlawfully. If you kill someone who’s trying to rape you, it’s not a crime because you were defending yourself; it’s the would-be rapist who acted with a deprived heart and wicked desire. In the cases I’m involved with as a forensic psychologist, the defendant’s frame of mind at the time is in question. Take the case of Beth, for instance. Early in the morning, she stabbed her husband Jonathan in the chest with a scissor from her sewing kit. It happened fast and without provocation, as he walked into their bedroom to say he was leaving for the gym. He survived. They had marital and financial problems, caused mostly by his alcohol abuse and many job losses. But they were trying to work things out, especially because she recently gave birth to their son. Two days earlier, she saw her doctor for postpartum depression. Their marital tensions continued, and their arguments were sometimes intense. Beth was resentful of his drinking and angry, even enraged at him for all the grief he caused, but never physically aggressive.
So the attack came out of the blue. Jonathan described her as having had “a weird look in her eyes” when he walked into the bedroom. What happened? Did her anger finally get the best of her, after years of seething resentment, or was she in some kind of altered reality when she stabbed Jonathan. What was her mens rea at the time?
Thomas Aquinas exclaimed that “…God alone, the framer of the divine law, is competent to judge the inward movement of wills.” So how does a mere mortal, a forensic psychologist, go about making judgments about the inner movement and will of a defendant? The short answer is, “with great care,” but the more satisfying one is complicated. To come to an understanding of another’s mental state requires many hours with the defendant, as I develop an understanding of the defendant’s personal history and motivations. It involves contacts with people who know her or him well, lots of records reviewed and specialized psychological testing designed to answer specific concerns. Is the defendant exaggerating or faking mental illness? Is the defendant being honest when she says, “I don’t remember what happen’” or, is he faking memory problems? Was the person psychotic at the time of the crime? Does he or she have an antisocial personality?
I’m called upon when the inner motivation of a defendant is in question: it’s the subjective bugaboo, that “inward movement” of the will needs to be clarified. My task is to help the court and fact finders – the judge or the jury – understand the defendant’s psychological state at the time of the crime and help answer the question: Was the defendant’s criminal conduct accompanied by a mental state – a mens rea – that was intentional and rational?
By the way, Beth was found not guilty by reason of insanity. In future blogs, I’ll be writing about the insanity defense in all its complexity and the controversies surrounding it. But next, I’ll explain our legal system’s assumptions about human nature and why the mental state of a person, and not just the behavior, is taken into account before one is charged with a crime.