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Threshold too arbitrary to decide mental ability to commit murder

Even though someone may commit a crime without knowing that the action they are taking is illegal, in most cases ignorance is no defense in criminal prosecutions. But the intent to commit a crime is nonetheless always taken into consideration in the decision whether to prosecute a crime and in the jury's deliberations.

Known in the law as "mens rea," a Latin term meaning a "guilty mind," what the defendant was thinking and intended at the time the crime was committed is important in determining guilt or innocence. One example involves someone in possession of a gun. If a person is cleaning a gun in a safe manner and another person walks into the room and startles the person with the gun, an accidental gunshot resulting in the death of the second person may not be murder. On the other hand, someone who is cleaning a gun while waiting for the other person to enter the room with the clear intent of shooting the second person may indeed be guilty of murder.

But what about someone whose action would ordinarily be considered to be an intentional crime, but as opposed to ignorance of the law, that person does not have the mental capability to know that the act is a crime?

In May 2014, the United States Supreme Court set aside the death sentence of a Florida man who was convicted of murder. The Court found that Florida's threshold for determining whether a person is intellectually disabled to the degree that he or she cannot understand the illegality of the act committed was too rigid.

In a case decided in 2002, the Supreme Court gave each state the ability to determine its own standard for mental disability. But the 2014 case ruled that "bright-line" IQ tests that draw an arbitrary line between two numbers to determine a person's capability to stand trial are unconstitutional.

In the Florida case, the defendant scored a 71 on the state's IQ test, one point above Florida's "bright line" number of 70.

While a death row case involving an intellectually disabled person that goes all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court is an extraordinary example, it illustrates the complex nature of criminal defense.

Any person accused of a crime should seek the advice of an experienced criminal defense attorney who may be able to mitigate the charges or the sentence of the defendant.

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