Attempted Murder & First-Degree Assault and Battery: Does the Result Intended Matter?

On February 26, 2014, the South Carolina Supreme Court decided State v. Middleton, holding that first-degree assault and battery is a lesser-included offense of attempted murder, even if the victim does not sustain any injuries.  The Court pointed out that the statutory offense applies not only to “injuries,” but also to “offers or attempts to injure another person with the present ability to do so, and the act is accomplished by means likely to produce death or great bodily injury.”

Our Supreme Court held the “trial judge misconstrued the statutory definition of assault and battery in the first degree as requiring injury to the victim” and should have instructed the jurors about the lesser charge.  The Court, however, also held the error harmless because “the only conclusion established by the evidence is that Appellant was guilty of attempted murder.”

Justice Pleicones disagreed and would have held “that the refusal to give a jury charge on a lesser-included offense that is supported by the evidence is always reversible error and not subject to harmless error analysis.”  He reasoned, “It is not [the Court’s] prerogative to weigh the evidence and usurp the jury’s function.”

Properly instructed jurors could have reasonably concluded that Middleton did not intend to kill the victim and, therefore, convicted him of the less serious offense.

Middleton is the second case decided in less than a month where our appellate courts overlooked the results intended by the defendant’s conduct.  On January 29, 2014, the South Carolina Court of Appeals decided Sullivan v. State, holding, “Because there was no evidence Sullivan fired a gun unintentionally, he was not entitled to a jury charge on involuntary manslaughter.”  Sullivan is discussed in a prior blog post entitled, “Involuntary Manslaughter: Can an Intentional Act be an Unintentional Homicide?”

The decisions in Middleton and Sullivan raise the question of whether the focus should be on the intentional act or the results intended by the act.

Please click one of these links to read State v. Middleton, Sullivan v. State, and “Involuntary Manslaughter: Can an Intentional Act be an Unintentional Homicide?”