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Brooks v. U.S.

March 9, 1995


Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia. (Hon. Joseph M.F. Ryan, Jr., Trial Judge).

Before Ferren and Farrell, Associate Judges, and Mack, Senior Judge. Opinion for the court by Associate Judge Farrell. Concurring opinion by Associate Judge Ferren, with whom Mack, Senior Judge, joins. Concurring opinion by Senior Judge Mack.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Farrell

FARRELL, Associate Judge: A jury found appellant guilty of, among other things, three counts of assault with intent to murder (AWIM) while armed, D.C. Code §§ 22-503, -2403, -3202 (a)(1)(1989). *fn1 His principal argument on appeal is that, as to two of these convictions, the trial Judge committed plain error by instructing the jury on the theory of transferred intent. We affirm.


The evidence, viewed in the light most favorable to the government, revealed that appellant fired five or six shots from a handgun at Jermaine Acklin from ten to twenty feet away. The shots struck both Acklin and Leslie German in the legs. A third person, April Strauss, standing with Acklin, was also put in fear by the shots. *fn2 The indictment charged appellant with assaulting Acklin with intent to murder him. It further charged him with assaulting German and Strauss, individually, with intent to murder Acklin. With respect to the second and third assaults, the trial Judge at the request of the prosecutor instructed the jury on "the principle of transferred intent, [namely that] one who intends to assault one person and assaults a bystander or a third person, is deemed to have committed whatever form of assault he would have committed had he assaulted the intended victim."


We first consider appellant's claim that the evidence was insufficient, as a matter of law, to establish that he intended to murder Acklin. *fn3 He contends that at most the evidence showed that he had the general intent to assault Acklin (and the others) with a dangerous weapon. We disagree. As in Gray v. United States, 585 A.2d 164 (D.C. 1991), a rational jury could reasonably find that appellant intended to kill Acklin. In Gray the defendant, who had no apparent motive to kill, fired multiple shots in the direction of three children at close range, striking one. We sustained the convictions for assault with intent to kill while armed because "to fire a weapon at such range was bound to place in peril the lives of young potential victims," and because the defendant's lethal intent could be inferred from these circumstances. Id. at 165. In the present case, unlike Gray, there was at least marginal evidence of a motive on appellant's part to kill Acklin, *fn4 and, as in Gray, appellant fired a succession of shots at Acklin *fn5 from a short distance away. This evidence was sufficient to prove his intent to murder Acklin.


Appellant concedes that he committed three separate assaults by firing multiple shots at the victims, wounding two. See, e.g., Ruffin v. United States, 642 A.2d 1288, 1297-98 (D.C. 1994). He argues, however, that the trial Judge erred in permitting the jury to "transfer" his specific intent to murder Acklin to the act of assaulting the two unintended victims, German and Strauss. Appellant asks us to limit application of the common law doctrine of transferred intent by holding that when a specific intent assault injures the intended victim, the doctrine of transferred intent does not apply." In support of this argument, he cites the decision of the Court of Appeals of Maryland in Ford v. State, 330 Md. 682, 625 A.2d 984 (Md. 1993), urging that we follow Ford "as most persuasive authority in interpreting the common law doctrine of transferred intent in this jurisdiction." *fn6 In Ford the Maryland court disavowed its earlier decision in State v. Wilson, 313 Md. 600, 546 A.2d 1041 (Md. 1988), and concluded (if it did not hold) *fn7 that whenever a defendant has "'committed a completed crime against his intended victim which is as serious as the greatest level of culpability which could be achieved by transferring that intent to his unintended victim,'" the transferred intent doctrine should not be applied. Ford, 625 A.2d at 1000 (quoting People v. Calderon, 232 Cal. App. 3d 930, 283 Cal. Rptr. 833, 836 (Cal. Ct. App. 1991)). *fn8 Under Ford, therefore, appellant's intent to murder Acklin could be "transferred" only if he had killed German or Strauss.

The government argues at the threshold that appellant's claim of instruction error must be reviewed under plain error standards, Super. Ct. Crim. R. 52 (b) (1994). We agree, and find this point dispositive. Appellant did not object to the transferred intent instruction, twice stating that he was satisfied with the instructions as given. He accordingly must demonstrate both that the alleged instructional error was "'obvious or readily apparent,'" and that it was "so clearly prejudicial to substantial rights as to jeopardize the very fairness and integrity of the trial.'" Harris v. United States, 602 A.2d 154, 159 & n.6 (D.C. 1992) (en banc) (citations omitted); see also Foreman v. United States, 633 A.2d 792, 795 (D.C. 1993) ("Both prongs of the [plain error] standard must be satisfied"). It is enough in this case to hold that appellant fails the first prong of the test.

First, even assuming that Ford -- as a Maryland decision interpreting the common law -- would be persuasive authority on the limits of the transferred intent doctrine, Ford could not have commended itself to the trial Judge in this case because it was decided after appellant's November 1992 trial. Indeed, the Ford court recognized that its understanding of transferred intent was contrary to the prevailing rule in Maryland of Wilson, supra, that transferred intent could properly support a conviction for attempted murder (or, presumably, assault with intent to murder) even if that crime had also been completed against the intended victim. *fn9 See also State v. Earp, 319 Md. 156, 571 A.2d 1227, 1231 (Md. 1990) (specific intent required for attempted murder "may be a 'transferred' intent, that is, the mens rea of a defendant as to his intended victim will be transferred to an unintended victim who suffers injury as a result of the defendant's attempt"). Looking solely to Maryland law, therefore, it scarcely could have been obvious to the trial Judge -- quite to the contrary -- that appellant's intent to murder Acklin could not be "transferred" so as to complete the crimes of specific intent assault on German and Strauss.

Of greater importance, however, is the fact that case law in this jurisdiction would have left the trial Judge with at least a serious question whether Ford's limitation on transferred intent can be reconciled with this court's interpretation of D.C. Code § 22-503, under which appellant was charged. The government states that, before "the Maryland Court of Appeals' decision in Ford, this Court . . . had not considered the argument advanced by appellant in this appeal -- namely, whether transferred intent may properly be used to support a conviction for assault with intent to murder an unintended victim when an assault with intent to murder has also been completed against the intended victim." *fn10 That may be true, but two prior decisions of this court nonetheless have construed the mens rea element of § 22-503, as well as of its companion statute § 22-501 (assault with intent to kill, rob, or commit related offenses), in a manner consistent with the doctrine of transferred intent.

In Moore v. United States, 508 A.2d 924 (D.C. 1986) (per curiam), the defendant was convicted of armed robbery of one victim, Cotten, and of assault of another, Rowe, with the intent to rob Cotten (§ 22-501). *fn11 On appeal he challenged the second conviction on the ground that § 22-501 requires that the person assaulted be the person the defendant intended to rob. We rejected that argument, holding that although "neither the language of the statute nor its legislative history is dispositive" of the issue, id. at 925, it would "ignore common sense and evident statutory purpose" to require identity between the intended victim of the assault and the person actually assaulted. Id. at 926.

The increased penalty attendant to an assault with intent to rob, as opposed to a simple assault, is reflective of a major statutory purpose, to punish an assailant whose criminal conduct potentially exposes the assault victim to a greater risk of harm because ...

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