When we hear about a murder, our thoughts immediately go straight to motive — why was it committed?
In a court of law, however, motive is generally not an element of a crime that must be proven by the prosecution beyond a reasonable doubt.
Instead, an offender’s motive is what is used to establish reasonable doubt – and reasonable doubt is the gold standard for proving someone guilty in court.
Still, motive plays its part.
Take, for example, the recent death of a Texas City man — allegedly at the hands of his roommate. Police discovered the victim’s body. Through physical evidence, police were able to connected the crime to his roommate.
For this reason, law enforcement certainly didn’t need to prove motive to charge him. So why then, did they spend the time to learn what may have motivated the murder in the first place?
What Is “Motive” under Texas Law?
The term “motive” is defined as “an idea, belief, or emotion that urges a person to act in accordance with that state of mind.”
Motive’s Role in the Investigation Phase
In criminal law, a motive is used as a way to connect a person with a crime. Here’s an example.
Let’s say a person is accused of killing someone who recently made them beneficiary of a life insurance policy. In a case like this, the prosecution may feel, through inference, that the motivation for murder was money.
Still, while motive is important in the investigation of a crime to help lead investigators to the perpetrator, and to allow a prosecutor to determine what charge to bring, it’s not what is used in criminal court to determine concrete guilt or innocence.
Motive’s Role During Sentencing
Motive doesn’t officially come back into play until after an offender has been found guilty of a crime, during the sentencing phase.
The prosecution may ask (or a judge may consider of their own accord) increasing (or decreasing) a sentence depending on whether the defendant’s motive might be considered honorable, like acting in defense of another.
Motive versus Intent in Texas Criminal Cases
It’s important to understand that motive is different than intent in criminal law. When someone has criminal intent, this determines an offender’s state of mind while committing the crime.
There are a few exceptions to this, such as hate crimes, but typically prosecutors don’t need to prove motive in order to convict a person — they merely need to show that the defendant intended to perpetrate an illegal act.
These terms are often confused simply because prosecutors, as well as defense attorneys, like to make motive an issue while trying a case.
You know why?
Because while the court isn’t necessarily interested in a motive, a jury usually is, and especially in a murder case where the standard of proof is “beyond a reasonable doubt.”
How Does Texas Handle Reasonable Doubt?
Reasonable doubt is a term familiar to many people. It’s traditionally the standard of proof that is needed in order to convict someone of a crime in criminal court.
Reasonable doubt in a criminal trial is what extends deliberation; it’s what hangs a jury; it’s what helps the accused avoid conviction. When reasonable doubt exists, the state cannot find a person guilty of a crime.
In Proving Texas Hate Crimes, Motive Does Make a Difference
According to Texas law, hate crimes are motivated by a belief regarding the victim’s protected status such as age, economic status, political affiliation, gender identity, sex, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, or disability.
While proving other cases don’t benefit from confirming a certain motive, proving a hate crime does. This is because prosecutors must show that the crime was motivated by hostility toward the victim based on their protected status.
Besides murder, hate crimes have historically included:
- Armed robbery
In this way, hate crime laws are exemptions to the common rule that you don’t need any proof of a motive in criminal court in order to prove guilt.
Penalties for Hate Crime Convictions in Texas
Hate crimes are one of the instances that, apart from other influencing factors such as the level of damage and whether weapons were involved, punishment can be influenced heavily by an offender’s motive.
In other words, penalties may be enhanced — extra punishment can be legally applied to the original sentence if a hate crime has been perpetrated. Enhancements for hate crimes can include:
- Anger management treatment
- Financial penalties
- Mandatory restitution to victims
- Additional time in prison
Ensuring the Role Motive Plays in Your Texas Murder Cases
When your life is on the line, ensuring the role motive plays in your Texas murder case can mean everything. Don’t face murder charges without a seasoned Texas criminal defense attorney in your corner.
While it’s the hard evidence that is supposed to seal the deal on proving guilt or innocence, motive can go a long way in establishing reasonable doubt in the subjective minds of a jury.
If you need help understanding murder laws in the state of Texas, or advice on your personal situation, don’t hesitate to reach out to a legal professional.