What Happens if an Innocent Bystander is Killed or Hurt? The Doctrine of Transferable Intent

Posted by Joseph D. Lento | Mar 05, 2020 | 0 Comments

The law in Pennsylvania cares more about the fact that you wanted to commit a violent crime and then affirmatively acted on that intent, than the fact that the person you wanted to hurt escaped free from harm.

Perhaps nowhere is this more apparent than in the doctrine of transferable intent, which holds a defendant accountable for trying to hurt or kill one person, but harming someone else.

Transferable Intent in Pennsylvania

The concept of transferable intent is fairly straightforward: If you intend to hurt or kill Person A, but you end up hurting or killing Person B, instead, the intent that you had towards Person A transfers to Person B.

You may not have intended to hurt Person B, but the law thinks it sufficient that you intended to hurt Person A.

Crimes Where Intent Can Transfer

Virtually any violent crime that requires intentional conduct can be subject to the doctrine of transferable intent.

Only the most common examples include:

In any of these cases, a defendant can be held liable for hurting or killing an innocent bystander, so long as they intended to hurt or kill the targeted victim.

A Classic Example in Pennsylvania: Commonwealth v. Gaynor

An excellent, and succinct, example of transferable intent comes from a 1994 case that went before the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania. That case, Commonwealth v. Gaynor, began with a duel-like shootout between two people in an arcade. While neither of the shooters was killed, or even hit, by the bullets, one of the children in the arcade was killed and two others were wounded.

Expert testimony traced the bullets back to the gun used by one of the shooters. He was convicted of first-degree murder for the intentional killing of the child, as well as for both simple and aggravated assault for intentionally hurting the other two children he had shot.

While much of the court's attention was paid to the shooter who did not hit the children and whether he should be held liable for murder, as well, the doctrine of transferable intent was settled. While the shooter didn't mean to kill those people, it was enough that he intended to kill.

How Does This Apply to Stray Bullets?

Transferable intent comes up again and again in situations where someone shoots a gun at someone else, misses, and hits a bystander standing somewhere behind their intended target. Only just recently, a woman was hit by a stray bullet in Philadelphia while walking her dog.

Just like in the arcade shootout, when innocent bystanders get hit and hurt, the intent to kill someone does not disappear.

Joseph D. Lento: Criminal Defense in Philadelphia

Joseph D. Lento is a criminal defense lawyer in Philadelphia who serves people who have been accused of a crime. Contact him online or call his law office at (215) 535-5353 for the legal help you need to raise the defenses necessary to combat a serious criminal charge and protect your future.

About the Author

Joseph D. Lento

"I pride myself on having heart and driving hard to get results!" Attorney Joseph D. Lento passionately fights for the futures of his clients in criminal courtrooms in Philadelphia and across Pennsylvania as well as in New Jersey and nationwide. He does not settle for the easiest outcome, and instead prioritizes his clients' needs and well-being. With unparalleled experience occupying several roles in the criminal justice system outside of being an attorney, Joseph D. Lento can give you valuable behind-the-scenes insight as to what is happening during all phases of the legal process. Joseph D. Lento is licensed in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York, and is admitted pro hac vice as needed nationwide. In the courtroom and in life, attorney Joseph D. Lento stands up when the bell rings!


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Attorney Joseph D. Lento has more than a decade of experience successfully resolving clients' criminal charges in Philadelphia and the Pennsylvania counties. If you are having any uncertainties about what the future may hold for you or a loved one, contact the Lento Law Firm today! Criminal defense attorney Joseph D. Lento will go above and beyond the needs of any client, and will fight until the final bell rings.

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