The Pennsylvania Superior Court has decided the case of Commonwealth v. Predmore, finding that the trial court properly granted the defendant’s motion to dismiss the charge of attempted murder where the evidence showed only that the defendant shot the victim in the calf twice and missed with a third shot. Predmore is an excellent case which re-affirms the proposition that the serious charge of Attempted Murder requires the specific intent to kill. The Commonwealth may not prove Attempted Murder simply by showing that the defendant shot someone.
The Facts of Predmore
In Predmore, the complainant drove past his ex-girlfriend’s house and noticed the defendant’s vehicle. He stopped near the rear of the vehicle. The defendant left the house and walked into the parking lot. The defendant and the complainant then began to argue. The complainant’s ex-girlfriend broke up the argument, but the defendant then retrieved a gun from his car. He subsequently shot at the complainant three times, missing with one shot but striking him in the back of the calves twice. The defendant then left in his car, and the complainant went to the hospital. The defendant told the police that he had acted in self-defense. The Commonwealth charged the defendant with Attempted Murder, Aggravated Assault, Simple Assault, and Recklessly Endangering Another Person.
The defendant was held for court at a preliminary hearing. His defense attorney filed a petition for writ of habeas corpus (called a motion to quash in Philadelphia), asking the Common Pleas Judge to dismiss the Attempted Murder charge. After conducting a hearing on the motion, the trial court granted the motion and dismissed the Attempted Murder charge. The Commonwealth appealed to the Pennsylvania Superior Court.
The Superior Court Appeal
The Commonwealth filed an interlocutory appeal to the Superior Court, arguing that the trial court erred in dismissing the Attempted Murder charge and that the dismissal of the charge substantially handicapped the prosecution. An en banc panel of the Superior Court ultimately upheld the trial court’s ruling. The court began by noting that Attempted Murder requires the specific intent to commit a homicide. Thus, criminal attempt to murder is defined by reading Pennsylvania’s attempt statute with the first-degree murder statute. A conviction for Attempted Murder requires the prosecution to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant had the specific intent to kill and took a substantial step towards that goal. The mens rea element of Attempted Murder is the specific intent to kill, which is the same mens rea as first degree murder. The defendant must also have more than just the requisite mens rea. The defendant must also take a substantial step towards committing the intended killing. There is no such thing as attempted third degree murder under Pennsylvania law.
Here, the Commonwealth argued that the defendant attempted to kill the complainant by shooting at him repeatedly. However, the Superior Court rejected this argument. It agreed that the defendant had taken a substantial step towards the commission of a killing as shooting someone could lead to death, but it rejected the idea that the defendant had acted with the intent to kill. Attempted Murder requires more than just an action that could result in death – it requires an actual attempt to kill. Thus, had the defendant shot at the complainant’s head, or had the defendant said something that indicated that he wanted to kill the complainant, the Commonwealth may have presented sufficient evidence. The Commonwealth’s evidence failed to meet its burden, however, because the Commonwealth showed only that the defendant shot at the complainant’s legs from close range.
Notably, the Court’s opinion rejected the idea that the trial court should have just assumed the existence of the mens rea element from the defendant’s act of merely shooting a gun. In many preliminary hearings, magistrates tend to relieve the Commonwealth of its burden of actually showing that the defendant acted with a certain level of intent. Because the standard for holding a defendant for court at a preliminary hearing is less than the standard for obtaining a conviction at a trial, courts often assume that if something could have happened, the defendant may have intended for it to happen, and therefore actual evidence of mens rea is unnecessary.
The Superior Court explicitly rejected that argument here. The specific intent to kill may be inferred from the use of a deadly weapon on a vital part of a victim’s body. However, the legs were not a vital part of the defendant’s body. Further, there was no evidence that the defendant had shot at a vital part and missed because the defendant was only a few feet away from the complainant. There was also no verbal statement from the defendant that suggested an intent to kill or evidence of motive to kill. Therefore, there was no evidence of the requisite mens rea, and the Court upheld the dismissal of the Attempted Murder charge. A shooting is not automatically an Attempted Murder.
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