July 20, 2013

The acquittal of George Zimmerman in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin meant an end to the criminal prosecution of the one time neighborhood watch, at least, at the state level. Since the jury of six women set him free, protests continue to grow against the jury’s decision. Many think the jury got it wrong and that Zimmerman had a racially biased mind the night he shot and killed Trayvon.

Civil rights groups including the NAACP are now calling for the Federal and the Justice Department to bring a civil rights action against Zimmerman, for violating Trayvon’s rights guaranteed by the constitution. Some believe Zimmerman’s basis for killing Trayvon is not a case of self-defense that he profiled the teen because of his race, which qualifies as a civil rights violation.

Eric Holder, the nation’s Attorney General has said to bring a case under the federal jurisdiction for civil rights violation, the government must prove “specific intent,” a key element required to find Zimmerman, infringed on Trayvon’s rights, the night he killed the teen. The Justice Department, must show that Zimmerman in fact, profiled the teen and got motivated by no other thing but race, the night he set in motion the events that led to Trayvon’s death.

That Zimmerman was negligent or reckless is not enough to bring a federal action against him. Evidence presented at the state level and which the jury believed, showed race was not a reason in the case, though, the prosecution believed it presented enough evidence to convict Zimmerman. The justice Department therefore, must prove a higher standard of “intent” and as simple as it may sound, “Specific Intent,” is not always an easy element to prove.

What is “specific intent?” The idea is to shed lights on this important element that could decide whether the Justice Department takes up the Zimmerman case. Why is the element so important and what role does it play in criminal law? To find answers, it is important to know that “specific intent,” as a crucial element does not just stand alone, there is another known as “General Intent.” The difference between the two makes “specific intent,” a unique requirement in criminal prosecution.

The loose phrases “criminal intent” and “general intent” has not made courts to miss the fact that “intent” in the proper sense, has same meaning as “intention.” However, usually, courts have interpreted “intent” to denote purpose or design. Sometimes, “general intent” is used in the same way as “criminal intent” or it could be used to show all forms of mental state required for an act.

“General intent” can also be substituted for the intent to do an act on an undetermined occasion, while “specific intent,” may mean the intent to do an act at a particular time and place, or it could be limited to the one mental state of intent.

The attempt to define or assign meaning to the term “intent” has not been without difficulties in criminal law. Some writers in the field have tried to assign meaning to the term by defining “intention” as “the attitude of the mind in which the doer of an act adverts to a consequence of the act and desires it to follow. However, the doer of an act may advert to a result and not desire it and therefore, not intend it.” [See Markby, Elements of Law, § 220 (4th ed. 1989)]

Other writers have expressed that a result is intended only if contemplated as a probable consequence whether it is desired or not. (See Austin, Jurisprudence 424 5th ed.1985) Others like Salmond required the element of desire but assigned it a somewhat forced construction. According to him, ‘a man desires not only the end but also the means to the end, and hence desires, although he may “deeply regret” the necessity for, the means’. [See Rollins M. Perkins et al, Criminal Law and Procedure (6th ed. 1984) P. 472: In ref. Salmond, Jurisprudence 395 (8th ed. 1930)].

In dealing with cases involving “specific intent,” more is needed than an expectation that the consequence is likely to come from the act. Put another way, it is not necessary that the result be desired though, the element may become important. A person, who acts for the purpose of causing a result, intends that result whether it is likely to materialize or not. On the other hand, he intends the outcome which he knows would be the result of his act whether he desires it, regrets it or indifferent as to it.

The most common application of “specific intent” is requirement of a specified intention, a special mental element with respect to the actus reus of the crime. For example, the physical part of the crime of “larceny” is the “taking” and the “carrying” away of the personal property of another. However, these acts could be done intentionally, deliberately, with full knowledge of all the facts and complete understanding of the wrongfulness of the act without constituting larceny.

Therefore, in addition to the mental element requirement i.e. the “taking” and “carrying” away of the property, it must also be established that the defendant “intended to steal” the property. A defendant may take and carry away the property of another, with the wish to use and return it so, if this unauthorized use of property takes place with the intention of returning it, then the state of mind required for the crime of larceny is lacking. For example, one who takes the car of another, with the intention to use and return the vehicle and who did in fact, returned the vehicle to the owner, lacks the intention to steal or commit a larceny.

Such a defendant is not criminally liable for larceny but liable only in a civil suit for unauthorized or misuse of property only. For a defendant to be liable criminally under common law larceny, he must not only take and carry away other’s property by trespass there is need for an additional state of mind, the requisite “specific intent” to steal.

Likewise, common law burglary demands a “breaking” and “entry into the dwelling of another”. The crime could not be defined as the breaking and entry into the dwelling of another in the “nighttime,” because one could break in or enter the dwelling of another anytime, without committing the felony of burglary. Without the requisite state of mind to commit a theft, the defendant is only liable for a lesser crime not amounting to a felony.

To bring a civil rights action against Zimmerman, the Attorney General would have to show that Zimmerman, had the “specific intent” to do the crime with the requisite state of mind. The Feds must prove that Zimmerman intended the death of Trayvon because of his race, the night he shot and killed him and that he indeed profiled the teen. This could be a difficult argument for the Justice Department because the Florida trial, produced evidence that the case was not about race. State prosecutors also said they did not believe the case was about race though, the state Attorney General said Zimmerman profiled Trayvon.

There is no doubt the Justice Department will look through all evidence presented at trial, to see if there is anything that could lead to charges being brought against Zimmerman. Witnesses familiar with the case and those who had contact in the past with Zimmerman could be interviewed for evidence that would either clear or incriminate him.

Irrespective of whether or not a civil rights charge is filed, Zimmerman remains vulnerable to civil action filed by Trayvon’s family. Civil cases are known to require lower thresholds of proof than Federal civil rights cases or criminal murder charges. While the prosecution must prove beyond a reasonable doubt in a criminal murder case, all that is needed in a civil suit is proof by preponderance of evidence.

Dr. Adeyemi Oshunrinade [E. JD] is the author of ‘Wills Law and Contests,’ ‘Constitutional Law-First Amendment’ and ‘SAVING LOVE’ available at http://www.amazon.com/author/adeyemioshunrinade. Follow on Twitter @san0670.

Categories: Criminal act, Criminal Justice, Criminal Law, Current Affair

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