To convict a defendant under Maryland law of first degree murder, the prosecution must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant in a premeditated way intended to and did kill the victim. Maryland’s interim appellate Court this week explored the circumstances under which a conviction for first degree murder may stand for killing an unintended victim, in a case called Bircher v. State.
The case involved a shooting outside a bar which resulted in the death of one person and the wounding of another in the arm. The State called 25 witnesses in the prosecution’s case. Witnesses agreed that Bircher was drunk, and fired 13 shots aimlessly into a crowd of people outside the bar.
The defendant actually testified in his own behalf and gave his version of events. He acknowledged he was drunk, and claimed that from conversations with other patrons he feared he was going to be attacked. He then admitted that he “just started firing in between people,” intending merely to scare them away. The defense also called an expert to opine that Bircher had mental disorders which could explain that he really thought he was in danger.
The two sides disagreed essentially on the issue of intent. That State argued that shooting 13 shots into a crowd of people demonstrated a willful intent to kill everybody. The defense argued that Bircher did not intend to shoot anyone, much less the victim he died. The jury during deliberations sent out a note requesting further instruction on intent. Over defense objection, the judge further instructed the jury on the doctrine of transferred intent, “intent is present if a person attempted to kill one person and as a result of that act accidentally or mistakenly killed another person, such as a bystander or a third person.” The jury convicted Bircher of first degree murder, attempted first degree murder, and several assault and hand gun crimes.
The appellate Court reversed only the convictions for first degree murder and attempted murder, holding that transferred intent was not the State’s theory of the case. There was no claim that Bircher intended to shoot one individual and ended up killing another, and the Judge should not have given that instruction.