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Jurors Confuse Knowing and Reckless Conduct, Study Finds

Posted Dec 21, 2011 11:11 AM CDT
By Debra Cassens Weiss

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Study subjects reviewing hypothetical fact patterns had trouble distinguishing knowing from reckless conduct, researchers report.

The finding has implications for criminal defendants facing greater punishment because of more culpable mental states, the National Law Journal reports.

The study, funded by the MacArthur Foundation, asked volunteer “jurors” to sort defendants into four categories recognized by the Model Penal Code: purposeful, knowing, reckless and negligent conduct. The test subjects were able to identify purposeful, negligent and blameless conduct. But the distinctions they made between knowing and reckless conduct were mostly arbitrary, even when they were instructed on the differences. In many instances, the subjects imposed greater punishment for reckless conduct than knowing conduct.

The hypotheticals involved a man named John who dropped wood planks onto a bike trail. His culpability ranged from purposeful (John planned to injure noisy bikers with dropped wood) to blameless (a sudden strong wind caused John to drop the planks, despite his best efforts to hold on to them).

Most states have adopted or been heavily influenced by the Model Penal Code, which punishes murders and more serious crimes based on the degree of mental culpability. “While our results largely validate the MPC approach to culpability, the difficulty at the knowing/reckless boundary may suggest a need for reform,” says the study. “Such reform might include improving jury instructions, redefining the knowledge and reckless categories, or abandoning the distinction between those two categories either entirely or only in homicide cases, where the MPC distinction can have dramatic consequences.”

The study, "Sorting Guilty Minds," was published in the November issue of New York University Law Review.

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