NFL running back Adrian Peterson was recently indicted on child abuse charges in the state of Texas. Much of the surrounding conversation has centered on the morality of corporal punishment and the amount of discretion parents should or should not have in disciplining their children. But, for the purposes of a criminal trial, a jury will have to look to the relevant criminal statute to determine Peterson’s guilt. It will not be (or at least should not be) a question of one’s own personal judgment.
I’ve been asked by a number of my family and friends if Peterson is guilty. Without the full facts before me, it is impossible to make that assessment. What I can do is explain what the prosecution would have to prove if they were charging Peterson in Minnesota.
“Malicious Punishment of Child” is the Minnesota statute at issue. (Minn. Stat. § 609.377 if you want the actual text). It states that someone is guilty of this crime if someone intentionally uses “unreasonable force or cruel discipline that is excessive under the circumstances.” If the discipline results in less than substantial bodily harm, the person will be guilty of a gross misdemeanor. If the punishment results in substantial bodily harm, then it is a felony punishable by no more than five years in jail and/or a $10,000 fine. But, if the punishment results in great bodily harm, then sentence can go up to ten years with up to $20,000 fine, or both.
If Peterson was charged under Minnesota law, the State would therefore have to convince a jury that 1) the actions taken by Peterson were intentional, 2) the force used was unreasonable or excessive, and 3) prove the level of harm, if any that resulted from the punishment. These elements would have to be proved beyond a reasonable doubt.
While one’s own beliefs are inevitably woven into the discussions of the morality of corporal punishment, the purpose of the law is to provide a single, objective standard to judge people’s conduct. Whether Peterson’s conduct was wrong is a matter of opinion, whether Peterson is guilty shall be determined by the law and the facts.