The Vanderbilt Rape Trial and Distilling the Intoxication Defense in Tennessee

In the heavily covered Vanderbilt rape trial which is now underway in Nashville and in which several former Vanderbilt football players face sexual assault and rape allegations, one of the key issues that the jurors will have to consider is the intoxication of the accused.  It has come out in pretrial hearings that the defense team will offer an expert witness on the effects of alcohol on the brain.

Intoxication is generally not a defense to a crime in Tennessee.  However, evidence of intoxication, whether voluntary or involuntary, can be used at trial if it is relevant to negate the mental state of the accused.  Most crimes carry with them a mental state that must be proved by the prosecution to have existed in the mind of the accused, beyond a reasonable doubt, in order to gain a conviction.  Examples of mental states are intentional, knowing, and reckless.

If the mental state required for the crime is recklessness (which occurs when a person is aware of but consciously disregards a substantial and unjustifiable risk-the example that comes to mind is discharging a firearm towards a crowd of people without aiming or intending to hit anyone), voluntary intoxication is not relevant in the case.  In other words, voluntary intoxication is no excuse to reckless conduct.

However, a person could be so voluntarily intoxicated that he or she cannot act intentionally or knowingly.  For example, such a person so intoxicated could not be convicted of an intentional and premeditated first degree murder.  The state could still potentially convict the person of a reckless murder, a lesser offense.

If a person is involuntarily intoxicated (i.e. drugged) and the jury finds that as a result of the involuntary intoxication the person lacked the substantial capacity to either appreciate the wrongfulness of the person’s conduct or to conform that conduct to the requirements of the law that is alleged to have been violated, the person has established a true defense to the crime charged and there is no criminal responsibility.

What does all this mean for the Vanderbilt rape trial?  Likely the only issue in the case regarding the intoxication of the accused will be whether their voluntary intoxication negates the mental state that the state must prove.  The most serious crime charged in the case is aggravated rape.  Aggravated rape and/or rape can be proved by establishing, among the other requirements, that the accused acted intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly.  So, if the jury finds that one or more of the defendants was voluntarily intoxicated but nonetheless acted recklessly in committing the rape the state will still be able to secure a conviction.  The voluntary intoxication of the defendants could however negate the mental states for any intentional or knowing crimes charged in the case.


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