Mens rea is a legal term meaning ‘guilty mind’ referring to a person’s intent. For a crime to be committed, both the criminal act and criminal intent have to exist at the same time. State of mind is how jurors determine if a defendant committed a mistake, or is guilty of a crime. Fans of whodunit stories are familiar with murder in the first degree, second degree and manslaughter. Plan out a murder and that makes it premeditated – it’s murder in the first. Kill a man you caught in bed with your wife and your flash of passion makes it murder in the second. Kill a man by negligence, such as driving drunk, and you’re facing a manslaughter charge. Intent is – just about – everything . . .
I am loathe to wade into the tragic events in Florida where, at the very least, a confrontation ended in the death of a young man. So far, I’ve heard nothing indicating that Trayvon Martin was doing anything other than maybe taking a shortcut through a community where he wasn’t known.
Zimmerman appears to have been active in keeping an eye on his community. A rash of burglaries and other crimes had prompted residents to form a neighborhood watch. Zimmerman was the only one willing to be a captain, according to reports.
It seems pretty clear that Zimmerman was ignoring the “observe and report” directive the police give neighborhood watch participants the night he shot and killed Martin. He approached Martin rather than waiting for the cops to ask the “who are you and why are you here” questions. The dispatcher told Zimmerman “we don’t need you to do that” – advice he should have heeded.
One witness had Zimmerman on his back calling for help.
“The guy on the bottom, who had a red sweater on, was yelling to me, ‘Help! Help!’ and I told him to stop, and I was calling 911,” said the witness, who asked to be identified only by his first name, John.
John said he locked his patio door, ran upstairs and heard at least one gun shot.
“And then, when I got upstairs and looked down, the guy who was on the top beating up the other guy, was the one laying in the grass, and I believe he was dead at that point.”
This awful situation almost seems as if it were written by a very clever screenwriter. Zimmerman should have obeyed the police, but I’ve chased off burglars myself (the cops arrived 15 minutes later). My neighbor has thwarted a break-in.
I am armed almost all the time. I don’t carry because I want to use a gun, God forbid. No, I carry in case I need to use it for self defense and I go to great lengths to avoid trouble. Still, I could see a situation going south in an instant. Flat on my back, having taken a couple good strokes to my melon. Do I have to lose an eye because my assailant may not be armed?
What was Zimmerman’s state of mind when he chose to confront Martin? Did he go with murder in his heart, was he angry, looking to provoke a fight with Martin? Was Zimmerman in fear for his life or limb?
We don’t know – that’s what juries are for. Right now there are plenty of hustlers out there trying to seize control of the narrative without regard to facts, never mind justice. The problem is, any of us could be one mistake in judgment away from a dangerous situation. The Sanford shooting is certainly a tragedy. Perhaps it’s a crime. The most important thing we can do is demand that the law be followed.