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What does “hand of one is the hand of all” mean?
It’s a concept that is often misunderstood, sometimes even by attorneys and judges. It’s a dangerous concept that can result in a person being convicted of a serious crime when they – technically – didn’t commit the crime themselves…
Below, we will discuss what “hand of one is the hand of all” means under SC law, what it does not mean, and a recent SC Supreme Court opinion where a voluntary manslaughter conviction was overturned because the trial court got it wrong.
First, let’s talk about what “hand of one is the hand of all” does not mean. It does not mean, “if you were there, you’re guilty,” although I have heard police officers say this to suspects.
If you are present at the scene of a crime, that does not make you guilty of the crime, even if the person who commits the crime is someone that you know. That’s called “mere presence,” and, at trial, the court will give a jury instruction that says, if you were “merely present” at the scene of a crime, you must be acquitted.
“Hand of one is the hand of all” is legal slang for accomplice liability. What is accomplice liability?
To be convicted of a crime under the theory of accomplice liability, you must know that a crime is being committed, participate in the commission of the crime, and be present when the crime is committed. If there was a plan that was agreed to by yourself and the other participants, then you will be criminally liable for everything the other person does that is a “natural and probable consequence” of that plan.
In State v. Washington, decided September 2, 2020, the SC Supreme Court described it as:
…a person who joins with another to commit a crime is criminally responsible for everything done by the other person which happens as a natural and probable consequence of the act; if two or more are together, acting together, and assisting each other in committing the offense, all are guilty; a finding of a prior arranged plan or scheme is necessary for criminal liability to attach to the accomplice who does not directly commit the criminal act; when an act is done in the presence of and with the assistance of others, the act is done by all.
For example, if you and another person agree to burglarize a house, but you only stand outside as a look-out while the other person goes inside the house and takes the valuables, both of you are guilty of burglary under the theory of accomplice liability, or “hand of one is the hand of all.”
If the other person is surprised by a resident of the house and shoots and kills them, you may also be guilty of murder under the theory of accomplice liability (you may also be guilty of murder under the “felony murder rule“).
On the other hand, if you are standing on the street as someone breaks into a house, but you were not acting as their lookout and you were not involved in planning or participating in the burglary in any way, you are merely present at the scene of the crime and you are not an accomplice.
Or, if you are at a party and your friend pulls out a gun and shoots someone, you are not guilty of murder as an accomplice unless you helped to plan or participate in the violence. Just being there, even if you know the guilty person, is not “hand of one is the hand of all.”
In State v. Washington, Washington was charged with murder following a fight outside a club. The jurors convicted him of voluntary manslaughter (a lesser included offense of murder), but the SC Supreme Court reversed the conviction because the trial court instructed the jury that they could find him guilty based on “hand of one is the hand of all,” or accomplice liability.
At trial, there was testimony that Washington was the shooter. There was also testimony that Washington was not the shooter. There was testimony that Washington was there with another person named Kinloch, but there was no evidence that Kinloch was the shooter.
Although Washington’s defense attorney attempted to have a witness testify that Kinloch admitted to being the shooter, the court granted an objection by the State and struck the testimony from the record – which means the testimony was not evidence and the jurors could not consider it.
The State wanted to say that, even if Washington was not the shooter, he “acted in concert” with someone who was the shooter, and therefore he was guilty as an accomplice.
The SC Supreme Court held that it is not enough for the State to say that Washington acted in concert with someone – they have to identify the accomplice and there must be some evidence that the accomplice was the shooter:
For an accomplice liability instruction to be warranted, the evidence must be “equivocal on some integral fact and the jury [must have] been presented with evidence upon which it could rely to find the existence or nonexistence of that fact.” Barber v. State, 393 S.C. 232, 236, 712 S.E.2d 436, 439 (2011). In this case, there was evidence Petitioner was the shooter. There was also evidence Petitioner was not the shooter. The question becomes whether there was equivocal evidence the shooter, if not Petitioner, was an accomplice of Petitioner. Based on the evidence presented in this case, Kinloch is the only possible person who could fall into the category of Petitioner’s accomplice. Therefore, if the record contains no evidence Kinloch was the shooter, then the accomplice liability instruction should not have been given.
Although there may have been evidence that Washington and Kinloch were together at the club, there was no evidence that Kinloch was the shooter. Therefore, Washington cannot be convicted of murder or manslaughter as Kinloch’s “accomplice.”
Although Washington was originally charged with murder, he is now protected by double jeopardy on retrial. Because the jury at his first trial acquitted him of murder, he can only be retried on the voluntary manslaughter charge.
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