In State v. Williams, decided July 14, 2021, the SC Court of Appeals reversed convictions for attempted murder and possession of a weapon during the commission of a violent crime because:
1) There was no evidence presented at trial proving the specific intent required for attempted murder, and
2) The doctrine of transferred intent does not apply under the facts of this case.
The Court did not say that transferred intent can never apply to an attempted murder charge. They were careful to limit their holding to the facts of this case – where there is no evidence of the specific intent required for attempted murder (malice aforethought), there can be no conviction under the theory of transferred intent when a bystander is shot.
Attempted Murder is a Specific Intent Crime
Williams was accused of 1) attempted murder for allegedly shooting at a man named Myers in a confrontation outside the Cream Club in Sumter, SC, and 2) attempted murder of a juvenile named Ashley R. because a bullet allegedly intended for Myers struck her instead.
At trial, Myers testified that he did not know who shot him, and Ashley R. testified that Williams apologized to her afterward but that she couldn’t say for sure what he was apologizing for.
The jury acquitted Williams of the attempted murder of Myers – presumably finding either that Williams did not shoot Myers or that Williams did not have the specific intent to kill Myers, but then convicted him of the attempted murder of Ashley R….
Attempted Murder Conviction Reversed: No Specific Intent to Murder
The Court of Appeals reversed William’s attempted murder conviction (and the related conviction for possession of a weapon during the commission of a violent crime), because there was no evidence presented at trial to prove specific intent to murder either Myers or Ashley R.
Many crimes only require proof of a “general criminal intent.” Other crimes, like murder or attempted murder, require proof of a “specific intent” that is specified in the statute.
In State v. King, our supreme court affirmed this court’s opinion that “the Legislature intended to require the State to prove specific intent to commit murder as an element of attempted murder.” 422 S.C. 47, 55, 810 S.E.2d 18, 22 (2017) (quoting State v. King, 412 S.C. 403, 411, 772 S.E.2d 189, 193 (Ct. App. 2015)); Code Ann. § 16-3-29 (2015) (“A person who, with intent to kill, attempts to kill another person with malice aforethought, either expressed or implied, commits the offense of attempted murder.”). The supreme court explained, “Because the phrase ‘with intent to kill’ in section 16-3-29 does not identify what level of intent is required, the Court of Appeals properly looked to the legislative history of section 16-3-29 and appellate decisions holding that ‘attempt crimes require the State to prove the defendant had specific intent to complete the attempted crime.'” Id. (quoting King, 412 S.C. at 409, 772 S.E.2d at 192).
The intent to kill with malice aforethought is an element of both murder and attempted murder that must be proven beyond any reasonable doubt – if there is no evidence of intent to murder presented, whether direct or circumstantial, the trial court must direct a verdict of acquittal.
No Transferred Intent for Attempted Murder When There is No Proof of Specific Intent to Kill
Transferred intent is a legal theory where a person can be convicted for “accidentally” harming someone although they intended to hurt someone else.
In this case, the theory was that Williams intended to kill Myers, but accidentally shot Ashley R. instead – if true, then Williams could be convicted of attempted murder of Ashley R. His intent to kill Myers is “transferred” to the accidental alleged victim.
If there was no evidence of an intent to murder Myers, though, there is no intent to transfer – if Williams did not intend to murder Myers, he is not guilty of attempted murder of Ashley R., either. If there was also no evidence of an intent to murder Ashley R., there can be no conviction for attempted murder, and the Court of Appeals found that transferred intent does not apply here:
We find the doctrine of transferred intent inapplicable to this charge of attempted murder. The circuit court erred in denying Williams’s directed verdict motion because § 16-3-29 requires proof of a specific intent to kill. The jury acquitted Williams of the attempted murder of Myers, and no evidence in the record suggests Williams possessed any intent to kill Ashley R. See Gerald Williams, 427 S.C. at 150, 829 S.E.2d at 702–03 (holding attempted murder is a specific-intent crime in South Carolina)…
For the same reason, the jury’s verdicts of acquittal for the attempted murder of Myers and conviction for the attempted murder of Ashley R. are inconsistent and cannot stand.
If there was proof of a specific intent to murder Ashley R., Williams could have been convicted of her attempted murder. There was not. If there was proof of a specific intent to murder Myers, Williams could have been convicted of Ashley R.’s attempted murder under a theory of transferred intent. But there was not:
…we find the doctrine of transferred intent inapplicable in the context of the current indictment charging Williams with the attempt “to kill another person, Ashley R., with malice aforethought, either express or implied, by firing a gun numerous times at Malik Raekwon Myers, and striking Ashely R. with a bullet in her thigh.” While it is undisputed that Williams was armed and fired his weapon in the parking lot, we cannot reconcile the jury’s acquittal of Williams on the attempted murder charge for the shooting of Myers with its guilty verdict for an attempted murder of Ashley R.
What’s Next for Williams?
Because the jury acquitted Williams of the attempted murder of Myers, double jeopardy prevents a retrial on that charge.
Because the Court of Appeals reversed and remanded the charge for the attempted murder of Ashley R., the case will be sent back to the circuit court in Sumter County unless the State appeals the decision to the SC Supreme Court.
Once the case is remanded, Williams will be sent back to the Sumter-Lee Regional Detention Center, where he will face a retrial on the attempted murder and weapon possession charges related to Ashley R. He will be able to ask the court for a bond while he awaits retrial, and the prosecutor will either:
- Dismiss his charges,
- Offer him a guilty plea to resolve his case, or
- Retry his case.