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The role of motive in a criminal prosecution — and defense

On Behalf of | Aug 12, 2021 | Criminal Defense

If you’ve watched enough crime shows on television, you’ve probably heard the phrase “motive, means and opportunity” tossed around in fictional courtrooms a few times as if those are a trifecta of ingredients that have to be proven for the prosecution to convict.

In reality, motive is irrelevant — legally speaking. But that doesn’t mean that motive isn’t important to a case.

Prosecutors don’t have to prove motive to make their case

The prosecution in any criminal matter has a very high burden of proof. They must establish their case “beyond a reasonable doubt” in order to convict someone on a charge that could potentially deprive them of their freedom.

Certainly, the prosecution can’t make much of a case unless they can show that the defendant had both the capacity (means) to commit the alleged crime and the opportunity (the lack of an alibi or affirmative evidence of their presence at the scene of the crime). However, the one thing that the prosecution doesn’t have to prove in court is a defendant’s supposed motive for a crime.

The lack of a motive can weaken the prosecution’s case immensely

So, why does motive matter at all? Well, it comes down to human nature. Juries are made of human beings, and human beings like to know why something happened. Without a reasonable explanation for why someone assaulted another person or killed them, for example, it’s very hard for people to understand. When a crime appears to be unmotivated, that can lead to reasonable doubt in a juror’s mind.

Once again, this is a reminder that the best way to assist in your own defense when you’re being interrogated by the police or charged with a crime is to remain silent. The less you give the prosecution to work with as far as your potential motive for a crime, the better.