A jury appropriately inferred malice and found specific intent to kill where a Horry County woman wrapped her newborn in a trash bag and threw her in a dumpster, the South Carolina Court of Appeals has unanimously ruled.
The question before the court was whether a jury’s ability to deduce malice from a defendant’s conduct is inconsistent with specific intent required for attempted murder. In its Aug. 1 opinion, the appeals court found that it is not, noting that juries are sometimes left with nothing to consider except one’s actions.
“After all, actions can speak louder than words,” Judge Blake Hewitt wrote for the court.
In April 2015, Shelby Taylor had a daughter in the bathroom of the apartment she shared with her husband and her 16-month-old daughter, both of whom slept through the birth. Taylor, who hid the pregnancy from her family, put the baby inside a trash bag, tied the bag, tossed it in a downstairs dumpster, and cleaned the bathroom. After a nap, Taylor took her other daughter for a wellness checkup and visited her mother.
While Taylor was out, two boys found and rescued the baby. A receipt inside the trash bag led police to Taylor, who eventually confessed. At trial, Taylor argued that she didn’t intend to kill her child and that she committed the acts only because she was in a state of transient peripartum psychosis, or temporarily delusional.
At trial, an expert testified that this impermanent psychosis began months before the birth and ended after birth, and that Taylor said that her husband emotionally and physically abused her, that the couple faced financial difficulties, and that her family didn’t support her decision to have the first child. According to court records, Taylor initially denied any domestic abuse to a psychologist and a social worker.
Prosecutors argued that jurors could logically infer only that Taylor meant to kill her infant. She not only hid the pregnancy, they said, but forewent prenatal care. And rather than delivering the child to a fire station or hospital, she threw her away and went on with her daily affairs.
The jury agreed, convicting Taylor of attempted murder. She was sentenced to 25 years in prison.
Taylor argued on appeal that the trial court erroneously instructed the jury on implied malice because a footnote in State v. King—a 2017 state Supreme Court ruling establishing attempted murder as a specific intent crime in South Carolina—suggested that the General Assembly should re-evaluate the statute’s language because “the word ‘implied’ is arguably inconsistent with a specific-intent crime.”
King cited the 1988 Nevada Supreme Court ruling in Keys v. State finding that while malice doesn’t require the express intent to kill, “implied malice” is “general malignant recklessness” that has no application in the prosecution of specific-intent crimes.
But the appeals court made a distinction, noting that King spoke of implied malice as malice implied by operation of law, not the jury’s ability to infer malice based on its view of the facts.
“If ‘implied malice’ is used to describe mere ‘malignant recklessness,’ King plainly holds implied malice is inconsistent with and falls short of the bar for attempted murder,” Hewitt wrote. “Even so (and critically), nothing in Keys, King, or any other case prevents a jury from being charged that it can look at a defendant’s actions and imply or infer from those actions that the defendant ‘in fact’ had the specific intent to kill.”
Hewitt wrote that the trial judge charged the jury on criminal intent and malice and repeatedly emphasized that Taylor could not be convicted without finding that she specifically intended to kill the child.
The court also rejected Taylor’s argument that the state impermissibly told the jury that it could find malice based on her attempts to cover up the crime and her denials to police. Nothing, the appeals court said, suggested that the solicitor had acted improperly.
“Indeed, our Supreme Court has emphasized that parties are free to argue the existence or nonexistence of malice based on the evidence,” Hewitt wrote.
Attorney General Alan Wilson and Assistant Attorney General Mark Farthing of Columbia and 15th Judicial Circuit Solicitor Jimmy Richardson of Conway represented the state.
John Blume of Elizabeth Franklin-Best and Emily Paavola of the Death Penalty Resource & Defense Center, both in Columbia, represented Taylor. Neither attorney responded to a request for comment.
The six-page decision is State v. Taylor (Lawyers Weekly No. 011-070-21). The full text of the opinion is available online at sclawyersweekly.com.