South Carolina courts typically have applied the doctrine of transferred intent to murder cases in which a bystander, rather than the intended victim, was killed. Under the doctrine, the intent to murder travels with the bullet and transfers to whomever it strikes.
But what happens when the bullet doesn’t hit anyone?
The state Court of Appeals answered that question of first impression in a Feb. 28 decision that affirmed Gerald Williams’ conviction and 20-year prison sentence for the attempted murders of three people who were inside a double-wide home in Saluda when he opened fire on the residence.
Prosecutors alleged that Williams and two other men went to the home to confront one of the occupants over a botched drug deal and began shooting when another person — not their intended target — appeared at the door. The target and a woman also were inside the double-wide during the shooting.
In the wake of his conviction, Williams and his Columbia-based appellate defender, David Alexander, argued that the trial judge erred in instructing the jury that any specific intent that Williams had to kill his intended victim could be transferred to other people. If that were true, the state’s case would crumble because attempted murder requires specific intent to commit murder.
“The error is magnified in the factual situation presented here because, as recognized by the trial court, the evidence did not show that appellant was aware that anyone was inside of the trailer,” Alexander wrote in Williams’ appellate brief.
He added that the judge’s transferred intent instruction wrongly allowed the jury to find Williams guilty of attempted murder without requiring the state to prove that he knew anyone was inside the trailer or that he intended to kill them.
‘Malice is like a flashlight’
William Schumacher, an assistant attorney general in Columbia, contended in the state’s brief that Williams’ argument on appeal was built on the “mistaken belief that specific intent can only exist as to the specific, intended victim of attempted murder.”
“Not only is there an absence of language requiring a specific victim in §16-3-29, but this contradicts established state law,” Schumacher wrote, citing the state’s attempted murder statute.
“Moreover,” he added, “Appellant’s contention that §16-3-29 is only applicable against the targeted victim would lead to preposterous and unjust results in future criminal cases.”
As an example, Schumacher asserted that under Williams’ theory a gun-toting home invader who sought to kill a woman’s husband but ended up wounding her instead could only be convicted of assault and battery of a high and aggravated nature, rather than attempted murder.
“If Intruder missed Wife with his shots, he is now only guilty of first-degree assault and battery, and would face a maximum sentence of only ten years’ imprisonment,” Schumacher wrote.
He added that while Williams might not have known that anyone but his intended target was inside the double-wide, “the evidence shows his malice manifested when he opened fire on the silhouetted figure he saw at the door of the trailer.”
“Malice is like a flashlight,” said Miller Shealy, a criminal defense lawyer in Charleston and professor at the Charleston School of Law. He reviewed the Williams decision at Lawyers Weekly’s request. “It shines inside the house. And if you shoot up a house and anyone is in there, now you can get charged with attempted murder.”
Intent to commit murder
In affirming Williams’ conviction, a three-judge panel for the appellate court noted that it was unaware of any other case in the state that had addressed a similar fact pattern, and added that other jurisdictions have reached different conclusions when deciding whether transferred intent should apply to attempted murder.
But Judge Bruce Williams wrote in the unanimous decision that while “South Carolina does not require a victim to be injured to convict a defendant of attempted murder,” intent to kill is a requisite.
And he found that the state, contrary to the appellant’s argument, had offered sufficient evidence to show that Williams did, in fact, intend to commit murder when he and his accomplices visited the mobile home.
Williams also argued on appeal that the trial judge erred in refusing to instruct the jury on the lesser included offense of first-degree assault and battery. And the Court of Appeals agreed, but concluded that the error was harmless because the “evidence presented at trial yielded only the conclusion that Williams acted with malice aforethought and attempted to commit murder.”
According to trial testimony, Williams was carrying a loaded gun, opened fire on the double-wide after someone appeared at the door, and knew that one of his accomplices intended to get money from the intended target before they drove to the residence.
The state Attorney General’s Office did not respond to a request for comment. Alexander, Williams’ attorney, declined an interview request.
The 15-page decision is State v. Williams (Lawyers Weekly No. 011-026-18). An opinion digest is available at sclawyersweekly.com.
Follow Phillip Bantz on Twitter @SCLWBantz