Determining the appropriate punishment for a norm violation requires consideration of both the perpetrator's state of mind (for example, purposeful or blameless) and the strong emotions elicited by the harm caused by their actions. It has been hypothesized that such affective responses serve as a heuristic that determines appropriate punishment. However, an actor's mental state often trumps the effect of emotions, as unintended harms may go unpunished, regardless of their magnitude. Using fMRI, we found that emotionally graphic descriptions of harmful acts amplify punishment severity, boost amygdala activity and strengthen amygdala connectivity with lateral prefrontal regions involved in punishment decision-making. However, this was only observed when the actor's harm was intentional; when harm was unintended, a temporoparietal-medial-prefrontal circuit suppressed amygdala activity and the effect of graphic descriptions on punishment was abolished. These results reveal the brain mechanisms by which evaluation of a transgressor's mental state gates our emotional urges to punish.