OTTAWA — Canada’s top court will hear the case Thursday of whether a young woman accused of unlawfully abandoning her newborn after giving birth in a Walmart bathroom actually understood she was endangering the life of the child.
The woman, identified in court documents only as A.D.H., did not know she was pregnant when, in May 2007, she went to a Saskatchewan Walmart bathroom feeling unwell. She gave birth to a baby she claims she thought was dead, and left the store shortly afterwards, leaving the baby in the toilet where a store manager rescued it.
She was charged with child abandonment, but was acquitted in 2009 because the judge believed she hadn’t meant to “abandon” the baby, a crime that requires awareness that an action was liable to endanger the life of a child.
The Supreme Court’s decision could have implications in future criminal cases if the court rules that criminal liability can be based on the thoughts and feelings of the accused, rather than what a reasonable person should be aware of, as the prosecution argues.
In order to find someone guilty of a crime, the prosecution has to prove, beyond reasonable doubt, that 1) there was a crime; 2) the accused committed the crime in question (in Latin, the “actus reus”; and 3) the accused had the intention (in Latin, the “mens rea”) to commit that crime. If the Court in this case rules that the mens rea is subjective – that it is based on the accused’s thoughts and feelings at the time and not a more objective standard of what a reasonable person should be aware of, then you can expect to have a lot more cases of accused criminals getting off by arguing that they hadn’t quite realized what they were doing at the time of the crime…
The Court is hearing arguments from both sides later this morning. A decision will come later – probably not before the end of the year.