It’s the thought that counts

Raymond Burr sits in a wheelchair, examining a gun.

Raymond Burr as Chief of Detectives, Robert T. Ironside.

Reboots/remakes are tricky things. The current BBC re-imagining of Sherlock Holmes starring Benedict Cumberbatch is altogether awesome, for instance. The remake of the classic Spencer Tracey Father of the Bride with Steve Martin was also pretty darn awesome.

The recent remakes of V and True Grit, on the other hand…

So NBC has launched a remake of the ’70s detective series, Ironside, and they cast Blair Underwood in a role based very loosely on the character originated by Raymond Burr. I’ve watched the pilot, and it wasn’t awful. I’m not even sure I would call it bad. But mediocre certainly springs to mind. Supporting characters completely lacking in anything resembling a personality does as well.

Sometimes series (whether books or television) take a while to find their footing, so I’m going to probably give it a few more episodes. But by the time I finished watching the pilot, I needed something to cleanse my brain, and by chance I’ve had the TiVo recording re-runs of another Raymond Burr iconic series, Perry Mason. It was truly a joy to watch a 1962 episode.

One of the things I loved about the classic Mason television series, as well as the books, was how often Mason would quote specific principles of law. For instance, in the episode I watched that night, Della Street, Mason’s secretary, has been accused of aiding and abetting a felony murder which may have been committed by an old friend. Mason points out to the officer that in order for her to be found guilty, they have to prove that she knew her friend had committed a felony before she acted, that she willingly assisted the friend, and that both she and the friend were doing what they were doing with the intent to avoid arrest for the crime.

Which is true of many of our laws. What you’re thinking and why you’re doing what you are doing determine whether the act is a crime. It is seldom just the action, but also the intent. This is a legal principle that has been with us since at least the times of the Ancient Sumerians…

The cast of Perry Mason.

Paul Drake, Perry Mason, and Della Street looking for clues.

Which is why I always roll my eyes when people start whining and crying about hate crimes laws or anti-bullying policies as creating “thought police.” As if taking into account someone’s motive is a brand new idea, let alone a bad one.

For instance, what is the difference between “murder in the second degree” and a “not-guilty by reason of self-defense”? Motive. If you killed the person because you were angry, it’s murder. If you killed the person because you feared for your life or safety (and the jury agrees that a reasonable person might fear for their life or safety in that situation) then you didn’t commit a crime at all.

It’s not just the thought, but the whole situation: your actions, the situation you were in, and the reasons you did what you did. All of those are taken into account when determining whether a particular event amounts to involuntary manslaughter, negligent homicide, murder, or not guilty due to self-defense.

In other situations the motive of the perpetrator means the difference between the severity of the crime and the punishment. For instance, the kidnapping laws in most jurisdictions allow for a not guilty ruling if a) there was no intent to use force or threat of force or actual deadly force, b) if the “abductor” is a relative, guardian, or has a similar relationship, c) the “abductor”‘s sole intent was to assume custody/care of the person. That sounds a little weird, but:

One of my uncles was once arrested for kidnapping simply because he was watching his girlfriend’s kid. What he didn’t know at the time was that the girlfriend was trying to avoid leaving her son alone with her ex-husband during his court-ordered visitation time, so she had called my uncle and said, “I have to go to work to cover for someone, so I don’t have my usual sitter or daycare available. Can you come pick him up?”

My uncle was released without being charged because it soon became clear he had really had no idea what was going on.

Battery has to be on purpose, or it isn’t a crime. The difference between misdemeanor assault (a minor offense) and aggravated assault (a serious offense) includes what your intent is. If you push someone away during an altercation, it might be a misdemeanor or even self-defense, but if you grabbed a deadly weapon and lunge at them, screaming that you think they should die, that’s more serious. And it’s more serious because of your apparent intent and your apparent disregard for their safety.

Actions may speak louder than words, but the thought counts, too. And determining the intent, motive, and state of mind of a defendant is something we’ve been asking juries to do for as long as the concept of juries has existed.

It is very hard for religious conservatives and their allies to accept this notion. Which is almost ironic, because even Jesus said that the sin lies in the intent, not the act (Matthew 5:28).


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About fontfolly

I've loved reading for as long as I can remember. I write fantasy, science fiction, mystery, and nonfiction. I used to publish an anthropomorphic sci-fi/space opera literary fanzine. I attend and work on the staff for several anthropormorphics, anime, and science fiction conventions. I live near Seattle with my wonderful husband, still completely amazed that he puts up with me at all.

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