Elements of a Crime (Actus Reus & Mens Rea)
Model Lesson Plan
Source: Original lesson plan. Handout #2 from David Crump, Criminal Law: Cases, Statutes, And Lawyering Strategies, Lexis Nexis 2005 pg. 117-18.
Goals: by the end of this class students should have a strong foundation for reading criminal statutes and differentiating similar crimes.
Knowledge objectives: as a result of this class students will be better able to: i.
define “Actus Reus” and “Mens Rea”
understand the different gradations of Mens Rea
understand the differences between Washington’s homicide statutes b.
Skills objectives: as a result of this class students will be better able to: i.
read a statute carefully and apply it to fact patterns
present and defend their interpretations of the law
Students should understand that the severity of criminal punishments can vary greatly depending on the defendant’s mental state in a manner that is largely consistent with the general societal belief that intentionally wrongful acts are worse than unintentional, but still wrongful acts. ii.
Students should carefully consider the potentially harsh results that occur when legislatures replace mens rea with strict liability.
Distribute Handout #1 (Hypos)
Read the introductory hypothetical aloud as a class. Ask for volunteers to answer the questions. a.
The class should come to the conclusion that Frank did “cause” Bill’s death in the sense that if he hadn’t moved the mirror in the particular way he did at that exact time, the window washer wouldn’t have been blinded and Bill wouldn’t have slipped. This is a good example of “but for” or “actual causation” as used in Handout #2. However, the law typically only imposes liability where the defendant’s conduct is the “proximate cause” of the harmful event/ crime. b.
However, it seems like Frank didn’t do anything “wrong.” Try to elicit why this result seems wrong and write the class’s ideas on the whiteboard.
Distribute Handout #2 (Elements)
Handout #2 Walk through the Elements handout. Be careful to explain that not all of the elements are always present in a criminal statute. For example, attempted murder doesn’t have a harm element and parking violations don’t have a mens rea element, e.g. one can receive a parking citation for parking in a handicapped spot even if it was unintentional or an accident. Furthermore, the elements aren’t perfectly discrete and there is some overlap.
Distribute Handout #3 (Statutes)
Explain that the groups will be analyzing the hypos with respect to the statutes provided in Handout #3. The Grades of Homicide are meant to demonstrate the changes mens rea. b.
Walk through the statutes and give a thumbnail sketch of i.
First degree murder:
Premeditated killing. An intentional killing that was deliberate and contemplated prior to the killing. 2.
Extreme Indifference. Covers the possibility that someone knows that what they are going to do will result in the death of another person, but at the same time doesn’t “intend” to kill. See the bomb hypo in handout # 1. ii.
Second degree murder
Intentional killing without premeditation. The classic example is a passion killing where the homicide occurs in the heat of the moment. iii.
First degree manslaughter
Recklessness. Conscious awareness of an unacceptable risk to human life. Recklessness is similar to extreme indifference, but the risk that human life will be lost is less. iv.
Second degree manslaughter
Criminal negligence. Gross deviation from standard of care. v.
No mens rea. Strict liability with a limited affirmative defense where minor misrepresents age. In an effort to protect minor children, state legislatures have placed an increased burden to ascertain age on the older party.
Break into groups of 3-5 to apply statutes to Hypos 1-5. Have groups designate a...
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