Criminal Purpose


Fundamentals of Criminal Law

Adam J. McKee, Ph.D.

Jack Brown, Ph.D.


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Most criminal law texts don’t spend a lot of time belaboring the idea of a criminal defendant acting purposely.  In our culture, we learn that doing something “on purpose” is the ultimate in blameworthy mental states. Very small children report the upsetting actions of other small children to adults, making sure to add that “he did it on purpose!” through sobs of indignation.  When someone does something on purpose, then, they wanted the harmful outcome to happen. Once the intent to harm is established, the degree of harm intended usually does not matter. If I punch Bob in the face with the intent of harming him, and I break his jaw (which I did not intend), then the mental element of acting purposely is satisfied and I can be convicted under the more serious version of the battery statute.  In other words, if I intended to commit a Battery in the third degree and end up committing a Batter in the Second Degree, that is the appropriate charge.

A closely related but less culpable mental state is acting knowingly.   Knowingly implies that the defendant is aware of both the nature of the act and the probable consequences of the act.  The subtle difference between the defendant acting knowingly and the defendant acting purposely is that, when acting knowingly, the defendant is not acting to cause a certain result but is acting with the awareness that the result is practically certain to occur.

Modification History

File Created:  07/12/2018

Last Modified:  07/12/2018

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This work is licensed under an Open Educational Resource-Quality Master Source (OER-QMS) License.

Open Education Resource--Quality Master Source License


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