Vanderbilt Law Review

Article Title

Decoding Guilty Minds: How Jurors Attribute Knowledge and Guilt


A central tenet of Anglo-American penal law is that in order for an actor to be found criminally liable, a proscribed act must be accompanied by a guilty mind. While it is easy to understand the importance of this principle in theory, in practice it requires jurors and judges to decide what a person was thinking months or years earlier at the time of the alleged offense, either about the results of his conduct or about some elemental fact (such as whether the briefcase he is carrying contains drugs). Despite the central importance of this task in the administration of criminal justice, there has been very little research investigating how people go about making these decisions, and how these decisions relate to their intuitions about culpability. Understanding the cognitive mechanisms that govern this task is important for the law, not only to explore the possibility of systemic biases and errors in attributions of culpability but also to probe the intuitions that underlie them. In a set of six exploratory studies reported here, we examine the way in which individuals infer others' legally relevant mental states about elemental facts, using the framework established over fifty years ago by the Model Penal Code ("MPC').