How Can “the Hand of One is the Hand of All” Apply When the Other Person is Not Guilty?

Every so often, a case comes along that illustrates how our criminal justice system is flawed.

It’s not really a “justice system,” after all – that’s just a platitude intended to keep the masses quiet and orderly and to prevent us from seeking justice outside the courts. The system is intended to convict and imprison people we believe have committed crimes. It is not intended to release people who are wrongfully accused or to give true justice to people accused of crimes.

The SC Supreme Court reminded us of this earlier this month in Butler v. State, where 1) a man was convicted of murder based on “the hand of one is the hand of all,” 2) the person he was accused of helping to commit murder was then acquitted of the crime, but 3) the SC Supreme Court says this doesn’t matter and upholds Butler’s conviction.

Butler is now convicted of murder and serving a 30-year sentence as an accomplice. A jury says that there was no murder (the principal was acquitted of the murder in a separate trial), and a judge says there was no murder (another codefendant was granted a directed verdict in a separate trial).

What Does “the Hand of One is the Hand of All” Mean?

The hand of one is the hand of all” means accomplice liability.

If you were present, and you participated in a crime, you can be convicted of the crime even if you were not the “principal.” For example, if my friend goes into a house and robs it while I stand watch outside, I can be convicted of burglary even though I never entered the house.

Or, if I participate in a robbery where my codefendant shoots and kills someone, I can be convicted of murder under a theory of 1) accomplice liability or 2) felony murder, even though I did not hold the gun or intend to kill a person.

Mere presence at the scene of a crime is not enough to convict a person of accomplice liability, however. You must actively participate and help in the commission of the crime.

The SC Supreme Court in Butler, for example, stated that:

Under the theory the “hand of one is the hand of all,” when two people join together to commit a crime, and during the commission of that crime one of the two commits another crime, both may be criminally liable for the unplanned crime if it was a natural and probable consequence of their common plan to commit the initial crime. See State v. Harry, 420 S.C. 290, 299, 803 S.E.2d 272, 276 (2017). In State v. Crowe, 258 S.C. 258, 188 S.E.2d 379 (1972), for example, the defendant and his cousin went to a poker club with guns, intending to rob the players. 258 S.C. at 265, 188 S.E.2d at 382. In the course of the robbery, the cousin shot and killed the victim. 258 S.C. at 264, 188 S.E.2d at 381. We held the homicide was a natural and probable consequence of their mutual plan to commit robbery, and therefore, the defendant who did not shoot the victim was “as guilty as the one who committed the fatal act.” 258 S.C. at 265, 188 S.E.2d at 382.

Justice Denied: The Hand of One is Not the Hand of All

The Court says, “therefore, the defendant who did not shoot the victim was ‘as guilty as the one who committed the fatal act.’”

But, the “one who committed the fatal act” is not guilty. What now?

Apparently, the hand of one is the hand of all when that hand is committing a crime, but the hand of one is not the hand of all when that hand is innocent –prosecutors can still convict other people of the non-existent crime:

For our purposes in reviewing the validity of Butler’s conviction, the disposition of the indictments of his codefendants—or even whether they were charged or indicted in the first place—is not dispositive. The important question is whether the State proved at Butler’s trial what is necessary to convict Butler.

It’s not important that 1) a jury, after hearing all evidence in the case, determined that there was no crime and acquitted the person charged with murder, and 2) a judge, after hearing all evidence in the case, determined that there wasn’t even sufficient evidence to go to a jury and directed a verdict of not guilty for the other codefendant (who was also charged under an accomplice liability theory).

The important question is “whether the State proved at Butler’s trial what is necessary to convict Butler.” Butler’s jury found that a crime had been committed, even though they did not hear the case against the person accused of murder, and they convicted Butler of murder as an accomplice.

But the co-defendant’s jury found that there was no murder.

Are we supposed to just accept that the truth is one thing in Butler’s case and something completely different in the codefendant’s case?

I don’t know the reason for the discrepancy in verdicts – Butler’s co-defendant’s defense lawyer was more effective than Butler’s, Butler’s prosecutor was more effective than the co-defendant’s prosecutor, Butler’s jury was more inclined to convict, Butler’s co-defendant’s judge was more reasonable, different prosecutors presented different evidence, the Hand of God intervened in the co-defendant’s trial, who knows?

But it matters.

If the criminal justice system is to have any semblance of justice, inconsistent verdicts resulting in one person being imprisoned for 30 years as an accomplice to a murder that did not happen is unacceptable.

SC Criminal Defense Lawyer in Charleston, SC

Grant B. Smaldone is a SC criminal defense lawyer based in Charleston, SC. If you have been charged with a crime in the Charleston, SC area, call Charleston criminal defense lawyer Grant B. Smaldone now at (843) 808-2100 or send an email to set up a free initial consultation today.


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