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Third Circuit: IAC Where Counsel Failed to Object to Accomplice-Liability Jury Instruction in Murder Case That Relieved State of Proving Specific Intent

The case began in a Pennsylvania trial court in 2006, where Aaron Tyson was convicted by a jury of being an accomplice to two counts of first- and third-degree murder and was sentenced to life in prison without parole. The charges stemmed from a 2002 shooting of two brothers, after Tyson handed a gun to a friend who shot the brothers to death.

The error Tyson raised in state court, and then eventually in federal court, was that the trial court wrongly instructed the jury on what was required in order to find him guilty of being an accomplice to murder. He claimed that he did not intend for his friend to shoot and kill anyone, and the prosecution was relieved of having to prove this element in order to convict him.

The court’s jury instruction was general in nature and not tied to either of the murder charges. It stated: Tyson “is an accomplice if with the intent to promote or facilitate the commission of a crime he encourages, requests or commands the other person to commit it or agrees or aids or agrees to aid or attempts to aid the other person in planning, organizing, committing it.”

The trial court further instructed the jury to find Tyson intended his friend to murder, “if the killer acts with the intent to kill.” It conflated the killer’s intent with that of Tyson, not distinguishing between the two. And the court repeated this error throughout the trial, even when the jury asked for clarification. The prosecutor also made the same error in closing arguments to the jury, giving an example that Tyson didn’t have to even know about his friend’s intent to kill in order to be as equally guilty of murder as the shooter.

Under Pennsylvania’s Standard Jury Instructions, accomplice liability for first-degree murder requires the following: “A person can also be guilty of first-degree murder when he or she did not cause the death personally ... but intended that a first-degree murder occur” by aiding the crime. PA-JICRIM 8.306(B)(4).

Tyson argued that the trial court’s general jury instruction on accomplice liability instructed the jury to find him guilty of first-degree murder if he intended to assist the shooter in the commission of any crime, not just murder. The Court agreed.

The Court found that the jury instruction given by the trial court was “substantially different” from the one required under the Standard Jury Instructions. The Third Circuit has held that when a specific intent instruction is required, omitting the intent part impermissibly lessens the prosecution’s burden of proof and thus violates due process. Smith v. Horn, 120 F.3d 400 (3d Cir. 1997).

The question in the present case was whether defense counsel’s failure to object to the erroneous jury instruction prejudiced Tyson. Under 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d), a federal court may grant habeas corpus relief to a state prisoner only if the state postconviction court’s decision denying relief was an “unreasonable application” of federal law, as determined by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The applicable federal law established by the U.S. Supreme Court in this instance is set forth in  Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984), where the Supreme Court held that IAC occurs when counsel performs deficiently and that poor performance affects the outcome of the proceeding.

The absence of an objection to the trial court’s erroneous jury instruction was “indefensible,” the Third Circuit said. “The court in no way conveyed the commonwealth’s burden to prove that Tyson acted with the specific intent to kill.” Instead, the court confused the jury into thinking that as long as the actual killer intended to kill, it was enough to meet the mens rea or “knowing” element of Tyson’s accomplice to murder charge, the Court stated.

A witness for the prosecution also testified that Tyson and his friend never discussed killing the brothers. In fact, the killer told Tyson to stay in the car, which he did.

The Court concluded that counsel’s failure to object prejudiced Tyson. “Had counsel requested the court to include the mens rea element of accomplice liability in its instruction, there is a reasonable probability that the jury could have found that Tyson lacked the intent to kill,” the Court explained. Thus, the Court ruled the state court’s ruling that defense counsel was not ineffective was an unreasonable application of Strickland.

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Related legal case

Tyson v. Sup’t. Houtzdale SCI



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