Court’s definition of ‘intent’ prejudiced murder defendant 

Attorneydiction.com,- A York County man serving life in prison for attempted murder will be entitled to a new trial, as the South Carolina Court of Appeals has unanimously ruled that the court presiding over his first trial created a highly prejudicial jury charge through its potentially misleading definition of “intent.”

In its Aug. 4 opinion the appeals court said that the unclear definition—which included motive, which was an immaterial element of the charge—could have left the jury to deliberate a specific-intent crime by using general-intent definition.

“Because motive had not been mentioned during the trial, the jury could have been confused by the definition,” Judge Aphrodite Konduras wrote for the court.

A specific target

John Perry was convicted of the attempted murder of two Rock Hill police officers who tried to stop him for a traffic violation. Perry jumped from the car, hopped a fence, and fired two shots from a handgun, neither of which hit anyone. At trial, one of the officers said that Perry had fired the first shot in the air but fired the second shot directly at the officer, while the other officer testified that Perry fired twice in the air.

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A South Carolina Law Enforcement Division agent testified that Perry told her that he’d run because he had outstanding warrants and was afraid of being caught with the gun, which he said accidentally discharged as he was trying to toss it into a nearby field.

The original jury charge described the offense of attempted murder—the intent to kill with malice aforethought—but didn’t define intent. When the jury asked for the definition, the court turned to Black’s Law Dictionary: “The state of mind accompanying an act, especially a forbidden act. While motive is the inducement to do some act, intent is the mental resolution or determination to do it. When the intent to do an act that violates the law exists motive becomes immaterial.”

Perry objected to the last sentence, arguing that attempted murder is a specific-intent crime and the charge was “essentially a general instruction,” and prejudicial because Perry contended that his gun had accidentally gone off.

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The state argued that because it didn’t have to prove motive, the charge wouldn’t prejudice Perry. The court noted the objection but allowed the charge.

Unclear intentions

In 2017, the state’s Supreme Court ruling in State v. King established that although state law doesn’t identify the level of intent required, the legislature intended to require specific intent to commit murder as an element of attempted murder.

In other word, King says, “…it is logically impossible to attempt an unintended result.”

The appeals court also noted its ruling in 2004’s State v. Sweat, which held that that while the state generally need not prove motive, motive can serve as circumstantial evidence of intent.

This finding was also consistent with the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals’ 1981 decision in United States v. Hammond, Konduras wrote, which established that motive was highly relevant in finding whether the defendant knowingly committed the alleged acts and intended to violate the law.

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Here, Konduras said, limited statements about intent might not have made clear to the jury that only specific intent applied.

“Further, because the definition of intent was given in response to the jury’s question,” Konduras wrote,” it was unduly emphasized as well, instead of just being part of the original instructions given.”

Judges H. Bruce Williams and D. Garrison Hill concurred with the decision.

Attorney General Alan McCrory and Senior Assistant Deputy Attorney General William Blitch, and 16th Judicial Circuit Solicitor Kevin Brackett represented the state. Chief Appellate Defender Robert Dudek represented Perry. Neither Brackett nor Dudek responded to a message requesting comment.

The 10-page decision is State v. Perry (Lawyers Weekly No. 011-030-21).

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