At least one reader has mentioned the concept of mens rea as the justification for holding ‘hate crimes’ as a worse crime than crimes that cannot be shown to derive from disliking a particular race, religion, national origin, etc. However, mens rea is not the distinction between one evil mindset and another. It is the distinction between the existence and the absence of evil intent. Proving mens rea is required for some crimes in order to account for accidents and situations in which an individual unknowingly violates another’s rights. It is meant to distinguish between criminal actions and honest errors when the actions and fault are not in question.
Sometimes observable actions do not reveal the mental state of the accused. For example, a driver may crash into another vehicle, killing the driver of the other vehicle. The court does not automatically convict the driver of murder. It must also prove mens rea, Latin for ‘evil mind,’ to show that the driver purposefully and knowingly killed the driver of the other vehicle. Otherwise, the first driver is presumed to have accidentally killed the other driver and may be found guilty of a lesser offense depending on the circumstances.
Sometimes the person committing what would normally be considered a crime is not capable of understanding that his actions violate the rights of another. The lack of mens rea is what protects a two-year-old from facing charges of theft. If a two-year-old child takes a candy bar from a store shelf without intending to pay for it, the child is not found guilty of stealing because he is presumed to not fully understand the meaning of his actions at such a young age. The child may not understand that taking a candy bar deprives the store owner of his property and may not know that his actions constitute theft. Were the child closer to adulthood, the courts would not make such an assumption.
Mens rea refers to any criminal intent, where the criminal is fully aware of his actions and their consquences and performs them regardless. Someone who deliberately murders someone for fun, without regard to their race, nationality, or religion, has criminal intent just as someone who murders someone because of their race, nationality, religion, etc.
We may place a value judgment on certain types of motivating factors. We may find it more despicable to harm a weak individual than a strong one. This does not mean that we create separate laws to apply to harming those who can't lift more than 50 lbs or run a mile in less than 7 minutes. We may believe it worse to steal from someone who earns $25,000/year than someone who earns $150,000. This does not mean that we create separate laws pertaining to stealing from a person with a high salary versus stealing from a person with a low salary. Both of these scenarios provide a corollary for the hate crime legislation that continues to be promoted by politicians today.