Specific Intent Required for Attempted Murder  

Attorneydiction.com,- Prosecutors can’t rely on the doctrine of transferred intent to prove attempted murder if a defendant lacks the specific intent to commit murder, a divided South Carolina Court of Appeals has ruled. 

In a July 14 opinion, the appeals court reversed the conviction of a man who’d been acquitted of the attempted murder of the individual he was accused of shooting at but convicted of the same crime for accidentally shooting a bystander.  

“In this case, the state failed to present any evidence that defendant had the specific intent to kill anyone, so the circuit court erroneously applied the doctrine of transferred intent,” Judge Stephanie McDonald wrote for the majority. 

James Caleb Williams, then 17, was involved in an altercation after attending a teen party at a Sumter nightclub in 2015. In the parking lot he and another teen, 17-year-old Malik Myers, each fired handguns. Williams denied shooting at anyone, claiming that he fired several rounds from a .40-caliber pistol into his own vehicle hoping to scare off Myers. 

Six bullet cartridges found at the scene were all fired from Williams’ pistol—Myers fired a .38-caliber revolver—but only five shots were accounted for. A crime scene investigator testified that five holes near the roof of Williams’ car were likely caused by bullets fired from behind the vehicle, lending credence to Williams’ contention. 

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Williams said that he probably fired the sixth shot into the ground, but prosecutors contended that it went into the leg of a 15-year-old bystander, “Ashley R.” A ballistics and firearms expert found several consistencies between Williams’ gun and the bullet that struck Ashley, but couldn’t conclusively match them.  

Myers had been shot in the leg in the shooting, and Williams argued that it would’ve taken a “magic bullet” to strike Myers, turn right, and strike Ashley R. on the opposite side of her leg. Williams contended that there was thus a third shooter. In his written statement, Myers claimed that Williams shot him, but recanted at Williams’ trial. Ashley R. testified that she initially thought that Myers shot her, but that she wasn’t sure. 

Twice during his trial, Williams moved for a directed verdict, arguing that nothing proved that he fired the bullet that struck Ashley R. Sumter County Circuit Court Judge Howard King denied both motions, finding sufficient evidence from which a jury could conclude the offenses occurred. The jury found Williams guilty of the attempted murder of Ashley R., but not guilty of the attempted murder of Myers. 

On appeal, Williams argued that the circuit court erred in failing to direct a verdict on the attempted murder charge because no direct or substantial circumstantial evidence showed that he intended to kill anyone. Transferred intent was erroneously applied, he argued, because attempted murder requires the specific intent to commit murder.  

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The appeals court agreed, citing 2017’s state’s Supreme Court decision in State v. King in finding that legislature intended to require specific intent to commit murder as an element of attempted murder. Additionally, the state had conceded that Williams didn’t intend to kill Ashley R. with malice and aforethought.  

“We do not understand how the specific intent for an attempted murder for which Williams was acquitted could be transferred for purposes of establishing a specific intent to kill Ashley R.,” McDonald wrote. “The language of the indictment and the State’s contention that it was ‘proceeding under transferred intent and we do believe that [Williams] was firing his gun with malice and the bullet struck Ashley R.’ are incongruous with such a result.” 

In his dissent, Judge Thomas Huff wrote that the question of whether transferred intent was properly applied wasn’t preserved for the appeals court’s review because even though the state made clear that it was proceeding under the theory of transferred intent, Williams never objected or argued that he was entitled to directed verdict because the theory couldn’t be applied to a specific-intent crime.  

“Appellant did not raise to the court that such was improper, and neither did the trial court consider all the facts, law, and arguments regarding the same and make a ruling on such,” Huff wrote, citing case law establishing that issues must be raised and ruled upon by the trial court in order to be preserved for appellate review.    

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The majority addressed this argument in a footnote, contending that the trial judge had the chance to consider the issue when Williams moved for a directed verdict and the state informed the court that it was proceeding under the theory of transferred intent. “The court ruled immediately—giving defense counsel no chance to reply to the State’s argument,” McDonald wrote.  

Huff also found sufficient evidence to send the case to a jury, and questioned whether the cases upon which the majority relied conclusively determined that the doctrine of transferred intent is inapplicable to attempted murder. 

Attorney General Alan McCrory Wilson, Assistant Attorney General William Frederick Schumacher IV, and Third Circuit Solicitor Ernest Adolphus Finney III represented the state. Chief Appellate Defender Robert Dudek represented Williams. 

Dudek did not immediately respond to a request for comment.  

The 28-page decision is State v. Williams (Lawyers Weekly No. 011-050-21). The full text of the opinion is available online at sclawyersweekly.com. 


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