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Motive and opportunity: are they necessary to prove murder?

When someone is charged with murder, it is often heard that they had “the motive and the opportunity” to commit the crime. The prosecutor can use this argument in court. If the case is reported, the media will undoubtedly echo those words. The defense may argue the absence of motive or opportunity as part of its defense. But is motivation and opportunity required to condemn?

Every crime has what are called elements. The elements of the crime are those that must be proven to find the accused guilty. For example, to convict a defendant of murder, the prosecution must prove that the defendant killed the victim and did so maliciously beforehand. Malice basically means having the intention to kill.

No motivation or opportunity to commit the crime is required to prove the guilt of the accused. So why are these words spoken so often in court?

The 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 show that he did in fact kill the victim. The defense can point to others who also had possible motives. Or they may argue that the defendant’s motive was not sufficient to lead him to kill.

Although it is not necessary to prove the guilt of the accused, the motive is often intensively debated at trial. That’s because people have a great need to know why. And in our jury system, it is the people who decide 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 them to life in prison or even death.

The opportunity to commit the crime is a little more obvious. Opportunity is also a basic thing that people want to see tried, although it is not a requirement.

Was the defendant in the area where the crime occurred? Were you familiar with the area? Did you have transportation, if necessary? Was there no alibi to verify that the defendant was elsewhere? Or if the defendant had an alibi, was it an alibi that could be challenged?

Although these questions are not technically required to be answered to prove that a defendant is guilty, they are things any jury would want to know. Therefore, the prosecution must answer those questions if it wishes to obtain a conviction. And the defense would benefit from keeping these questions active in the jury’s mind, if possible, raising questions about whether the defendant may have committed the crime.

Issues of motive and timing show that criminal trials often have to do with more than strictly determining whether the prosecution has proven the elements of the crime. It is also about answering the very human questions of why people commit crimes.

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