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Willful Blindness

July 4th, 2013 at 8:35 am

RigsMost convictions require that the prosecution prove the defendant had a criminal intent to commit the crime. Absent an outright admission, prosecutors have to rely on circumstantial evidence to prove criminal intent. Some defendants have attempted to negate criminal intent by turning a blind eye to criminal behavior.

For example, A, a person with a reputation of being a drug trafficker, asks B to transport a package. Because of A’s reputation, B suspects that the package’s contents may be illegal, but decides to transport it anyway while purposely avoiding knowledge of the package’s contents. This is called ‘willful blindness’ and it has landed many people in jail.

The seminal case holding that willful blindness will not preclude a finding of criminal intent is U.S. v. Jewell. In that case, like the example above, the court had to decide whether ‘positive knowledge’ is a requirement for conviction of a crime that requires criminal intent before a jury can find someone guilty. In Jewell, there was a dispute whether the defendant actually knew that the vehicle in which he was traveling contained marijuana. Defendant argued that he purposely avoided knowledge of any potential drugs in a secret compartment of the car. This so called ‘ostrich defense’, i.e. purposely burying one’s head in the sand to avoid knowledge, did not fly. The court held that there was enough evidence to support a conclusion that defendant was aware of a “high probability” that the vehicle contained an illegal substance. The fact that he did not have ‘actual knowledge’ was not enough to avoid a conviction.

Juries rely on circumstantial evidence to show the necessary state of mind for a criminal conviction all the time. Defenses to a criminal charge are fact specific and require skilled legal representation. If you are facing a criminal charge, an experienced Illinois criminal defense attorney can help.


Image courtesy of sakhorn38 /

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