Academic journal article Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology

Conditional Intent to Kill Is Enough for Federal Carjacking Conviction

Academic journal article Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology

Conditional Intent to Kill Is Enough for Federal Carjacking Conviction

Article excerpt

Holloway v. United States, 119 S. Ct. 966 (1999)


In Holloway v. United States,(1) the United States Supreme Court considered whether the scienter requirement of the federal carjacking statute(2) was satisfied where the assailant's intent to cause death or serious bodily harm(3) was conditioned upon the victim's refusal to give up the vehicle. The Court stated that because the statute's mens rea element describes the defendant's state of mind at the exact moment he takes the vehicle, and because neither conditional nor unconditional intent are mentioned specifically, the most reasonable reading of [sections] 2119 encompasses both species of intent.(4) Further, the Court argued that requiring proof of unconditional intent to kill would exclude from coverage the vast majority of crimes that the law obviously intended to federalize. The Court found that it was "reasonable to presume that Congress was familiar with the cases and the scholarly writing that have recognized that the `specific intent' to commit a wrongful act may be conditional."(5) Thus, over the dissents of two Justices,(6) the Court held that proof of conditional intent was sufficient for conviction.(7) Finally, the majority stated that because Congress' intent in enacting this statute was clear, the rule of lenity was inapplicable.(8)

This Note argues that the majority in Holloway erred in holding that proof of conditional intent to kill satisfies the scienter requirement of [sections] 2119. Contrary to the Court's conclusion, the most reasonable interpretation of the statute does not cover conditional intent. Moreover, the legislative history is unclear, and it is entirely plausible that Congress intended this statute to cover only a specific type of carjacking. At the very least, the statute is ambiguous, and therefore the rule of lenity should apply.



A survey of the criminal common law reveals two competing approaches to the issue of whether conditional intent(9) is sufficient for conviction where a statute requires proof of intent. In the majority of jurisdictions, conditional intent is enough.(10) However, a significant number of courts have held the opposite.(11)

1. Conditional Intent is Sufficient: The Connors Position

Although it was decided almost ninety years ago, the leading case for the proposition that conditional intent is sufficient remains the Supreme Court of Illinois' People v. Connors.(12) Connors involved a confrontation between two rival labor unions. The members of one union pointed guns at the members of the other and threatened to "fill [them] full of holes" if they didn't stop work.(13) The workers obeyed, and no one was hurt.(14) The gunmen were convicted of assault with intent to murder, and the court upheld their conviction.(15)

In so holding, the court asserted that the intent to kill may be conditional.(16) The court argued that it would be unjust to allow criminal defendants to insulate themselves from conviction where intent is required merely by coupling this intent with an "unlawful condition or demand."(17) Where such coupling occurs, the court declared that "the unlawful character of the demand eliminates it from consideration and the act will be judged in its naked criminality."(18)

2. Conditional Intent is Not Enough: Irwin and Kinnemore

Despite the influence of Connors, however, there is a considerable amount of precedent that holds the opposite: where "intent" is required by statute, proof of conditional intent is insufficient for conviction.(19) Two cases, State v. Irwin(20) and State v. Kinnemore,(21) are representative of this approach.

In Irwin, the North Carolina Court of Appeals considered the case of a foiled jailbreak.(22) The defendant was briefly released from behind bars to answer a phone call, and instead of returning to his cell he grabbed a jail matron, held a knife to her neck, and said "[D]on't any of [you] be no damn hero, I will kill this woman. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.