Transferred Intent: Also, “Awful but Lawful”

A terribly sad case out of Alabama touches upon one legal doctrine–the doctrine of transferred intent–and one legal aphorism–the ‘awful but lawful’ self-defense shooting.

The case involves a shootout between two groups of men, in the course of which a bullet fired by one of three men on one side of the fight struck and killed a 2-year-old at the scene. The three men were each charged with capital murder.

ABC News reports, however, that this week those charges were dismissed by the trial judge, upon request by the prosecutors. The basis for the dismissal? That the evidence strongly supported a legal defense of self-defense. Apparently the three men fired their shot only after they had first been fired upon by the other group.

But, wait, you might be thinking, surely the 2-year-old was not one of the attackers of the three men, so how can their shooting of him be justified as self-defense?

That’s where the doctrine of transferred intent comes in.

Transferred intent is a legal doctrine usually applied in a negative sense, to find criminal intent (and thus liability) for harm to a person even if no such harm was intended towards that particular person, so long a bad intent existed towards some other party.

An example makes this clearer: Joe decides that he’s had enough of Tom’s body odor and fires an unjustified and murderous shot at Tom with the full intent of unlawfully killing him. Joe, however, is a bad shot and misses Tom. Instead, the round hits and kills Harry, against whom Joe had no murderous intent. Can Joe be charged with the intentional murder of Harry?

One might argue that Joe never had any intent to murder Harry (only to murder Tom), so he ought not be criminally liable for having intentionally murdered Harry. The doctrine of transferred intent, however, holds that the murderous intent Joe possessed towards Tom has transferred to Harry, and so Joe can indeed by tried for the intentional murder of Harry.

This same doctrine of transferred intent also applies in a positive sense, however. That is, if Joe had instead fired the shot at Tom in lawful self-defense, he had good (not bad) intent in firing that shot. If Joe misses and instead kills Harry, Joe’s good intent at firing the shot towards Tom is transferred to Harry, and thus Harry’s killing is lawful self-defense–even though Joe never intended to shoot Harry and Harry never presented any threat towards Joe.

I must caution, however, that this form of transferred intent would not apply if Joe acted negligently or recklessly in firing the shot. If Joe’s shooting of Harry was criminally negligent or reckless he can certainly charged and convicted of manslaughter, criminally negligent homicide, etc.

In this case it appears that both the trial judge and the prosecutor agreed that the evidence supported a narrative that the three men originally charged with capital murder for the killing of the 2-year-old fired that round in apparent good faith self-defense, so their good intent in firing the shot at their attackers transferred to the 2-year-old victim, and further that their firing of the shot was neither negligent nor reckless.

This case also, of course, falls into that category of self-defense shootings that can be termed “awful but lawful.” The three men who fired the fatal shot certainly did not wish harm to the 2-year-old who was killed. The 2-year-old certainly did nothing that warranted deadly force against him. His death was not a social good. It was, obviously, an awful outcome.

The fact that it was awful, however, does not prevent it from being lawful, as this case illustrates.


Attorney Andrew F. Branca

Law of Self Defense LLC

Leave a Comment