Involuntary Manslaughter: Can an Intentional Act be an Unintentional Homicide?

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, in a post-conviction relief (PCR) action, alleged his trial counsel was ineffective for not requesting a full and proper jury instruction on involuntary manslaughter.

Sullivan and the decedent got into an argument inside Sullivan’s house.  Sullivan armed himself and asked the decedent to leave.  The decedent refused and advanced towards Sullivan in a threatening manner.  The trial court judge instructed the jurors on murder, voluntary manslaughter, involuntary manslaughter, and self-defense.  The involuntary manslaughter instruction, however, “did not include language explaining that a person can be acting lawfully if he is entitled to arm himself in self-defense at the time of the shooting.”  This language is important because

involuntary manslaughter is defined as either (1) the killing of another without malice and unintentionally, but while one is engaged in the commission of some unlawful act not amounting to a felony and not naturally tending to cause death or great bodily harm; or (2) the killing of another without malice and unintentionally, but while one is acting lawfully with reckless disregard of the safety of others.

State v. Burriss, 334 S.C. 256, 264-65, 513 S.E.2d 104, 109 (1999).

The facts in Sullivan pose the question whether the focus should be on the intentional act or the results intended by the act.

Although in a different context—interpreting the intentional act exclusion of an insurance policy—our Supreme Court addressed this very issue.  A “claim of self defense raises the question of whether the intentional act was done for an intentional result.”  Vermont Mut. Ins. Co. v. Singleton By & Through Singleton, 316 S.C. 5, 9, 446 S.E.2d 417, 420 (1994).  In holding the exclusion did not apply, our Supreme Court observed the insured “only intended to protect himself, not inflict a specific injury.”  Id. 316 S.C. at 10, 446 S.E.2d at 420.

Properly instructed, reasonable jurors could conclude Sullivan, lawfully armed in self-defense, only intended to protect himself, not cause death.

Hopefully, our Supreme Court will review Sullivan and reconcile the inconsistency between our state’s civil and criminal law.

Please click here to read the Court opinion in State v. Sullivan.