Whatever Happened To ‘Mens Rea’?

Actus Non Facit Reum Nisi Mens Sit Rea

(An act does not make anyone guilty unless there is a criminal intent or a guilty mind)

There have been two particular cases in the news of late. Both have set social media aflame, with the modern equivalent of barrack-room lawyers spouting their misguided opinions to all and sundry (and that includes almost anyone on Facebook, Twitter, or any of the other myriad sites abounding on the internet for the purpose of ignorant, ill-intentioned, axe-grinding by such dubious, uninformed, individuals).

The first case concerned an American woman involved in a road traffic accident in the UK that resulted in the death of a young motorcyclist. It was a tragic case for both parties concerned, though the car driver received little compassion from either social media, which can be expected, or the mainstream media who might have known better. The woman was driving on the wrong side of the road at night, mistakenly assuming she was in the correct lane because she’d driven on the right-hand side of the road all her life in the USA. The motorcyclist was on his correct side of the highway and the two vehicles collided head-on.

It was a tragic accident. The parents of the motorcyclist were understandably distraught. The woman driver, undoubtedly in shock and reliant on her husband and others for advice, fled back to the USA where she’s been hounded by UK trolls on social media, and is now facing possible extradition to the UK where she’ll suffer abuse from the public baying for their sort of distorted ‘justice’, and the unlikelihood of a fair trial.

The second case is much more serious, if for no other reason than it involved the deaths of 178 people. On the night of the 8th January a commercial  airliner was shot down shortly after taking off from Tehran’s main airport. Five days earlier, on the orders of the President of the United States, a US Reaper drone had attacked and destroyed a convoy near Baghdad airport, killing Qassim Suleimani, the second most powerful man in Iran, and his companion the Iraqi, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis. It was a deliberate assassination by the head of a nation not at war with Iran or Iraq.

The Iranians had retaliated by firing missiles into compounds occupied by US troops, but it would seem in such a manner as to cause no injuries. Nevertheless, their military was on highest alert for further attacks from the US and when the airliner flew too close to a military area it was mistakenly judged an incoming missile – with disastrous results.

Two major incidents, neither in any way related. Except that in both the road accident death and the downing of the airliner, there was a lack of ‘mens rea’. What is ‘mens rea’? It has nothing to do with male buttocks. It is Latin for ‘guilty mind’. In criminal law it’s generally accepted that a crime can only be classed as such if the perpetrator knew that his/her actions would result in a punishable offence. In other words,

“Mens rea allows the criminal justice system to differentiate between someone who did not mean to commit a crime and someone who intentionally set out to commit a crime.”  FindLaw.

The woman in the car had no sense she was on the wrong side of the road. Her brain was telling her it was the right place to be. She had no intention of hitting the motorcyclist, or indeed killing him. It was an accident.

The Iranian soldiers in charge of their air defence system had no intention of shooting down a passenger jet with 176 people on board. They were nervous, some might say ‘trigger-happy’, but it was a case of mistaken identity. They thought they were firing on a US missile about to wreak havoc.

In neither case was there any intention to cause harm to those who suffered it. There was a total lack of ‘mens rea’. Yet, the baying heard loudest in both cases has been for the blood of both the American woman driver of the car, and the Iranians who shot down the aircraft.

Under criminal law none of these persons should ever be convicted of an offence.

Take a moment to consider one other person involved in the second of these examples. The perpetrator of the attack at Baghdad airport that caused the deaths of two human beings. It was a deliberate act of assassination, a cold-blooded murder of two individuals carried out with the perpetrator fully aware of what his actions would achieve.  He knew exactly what he was doing. He had the ‘mens rea’.

Not only was he guilty of the direct act of murder, but by committing it he indirectly caused the deaths of 174 other people.

That person was Donald Trump.

Perhaps those internet trolls who bay for blood should direct their focus towards the true perpetrator of these heinous crimes, and while it may be contrary to their natures to do so, summon up a little sympathy and understanding towards those of their fellow human beings who, because they are exactly that and not machines, make simple mistakes that end in dire consequences.

Accidents happen all the time. Most we never hear about. More occasionally, heinous crimes are committed. It would seem, that when wrought by those in power, such criminal acts have become acceptable to us all.