When someone is charged with murder, it is often heard that they had “the motive and the opportunity” to commit the crime. The prosecuting attorney may use this argument in court. If the case is reported, the media will undoubtedly echo those words. The defense may argue an absence of motive or opportunity as part of its defense. But are motive and opportunity required to convict?
Every crime has what are called elements. The elements of the crime are what must be proven to find the defendant guilty. For example, to convict a defendant of murder, the prosecution must prove the defendant killed the victim, and that he did it with malice aforethought. Malice basically means having an intent to kill.
Neither motive nor opportunity to commit the crime is required to prove the defendant guilty. So why are these words so commonly uttered at trial?
Motive is why the defendant killed. Money and sex are common motives. A recently-purchased life insurance policy, or jealousy over an affair are potentially strong motives, for example.
If the defendant had a motive to kill the victim, such evidence is relevant to prove that he did in fact kill the victim. The defense may point to others who also had possible motives. Or they may argue the defendant’s motive was not sufficient to drive him to kill.
Even though it is not required to prove the defendant guilty, motive is often heavily debated at trial. That’s because people have a strong need to know why. And in our jury system, people are the ones deciding guilt.
Killing is an extreme act, generally seen as outside the norm of human behavior. It is natural for a jury to want to know why someone would commit such an act. It is also natural for jurors to want to hear a good reason before they feel comfortable convicting someone of murder, potentially sentencing him to life in prison, or even death.
Opportunity to commit the crime is a little more obvious. Opportunity is also a basic thing that people want to see prove, even though it is not required.
Was the defendant in the area where the crime occurred? Was he familiar with the area? Did he have transportation, if necessary? Was there no alibi to verify the defendant was elsewhere? Or if the defendant did have an alibi, was it an alibi that could be challenged?
Although these questions are not technically required to be answered to prove a defendant guilty, they are things that any jury would want to know. The prosecution should therefore answer those questions if it wants to secure a conviction. And the defense would benefit from keeping such questions active in the jury’s mind, if possible, raising doubt about whether the defendant could have committed the crime.
The questions of motive and opportunity show that criminal trials are often about something more than strictly determining whether the prosecution has proven the elements of the crime. They are also about answering the very human questions of why people commit crimes.
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