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Bryant v. Commonwealth

Supreme Court of Virginia

April 5, 2018

TINA MARIE BRYANT
v.
COMMONWEALTH OF VIRGINIA

          Present: Lemons, C.J., Goodwyn, Mims, McClanahan, Powell, and Kelsey, JJ., and Russell, S.J.

          OPINION

          CHARLES S. RUSSELL SENIOR JUSTICE

         FROM THE COURT OF APPEALS OF VIRGINIA

         This appeal involves consideration of the elements of the crime of unlawfully discharging a firearm within an occupied building, made a Class 6 felony by Code § 18.2-279. Specifically, it presents the question whether the Commonwealth has the burden of proving that the firearm was not discharged accidentally or inadvertently.

         FACTS AND PROCEEDINGS

         Except for the issue of the defendant's intent when discharging the firearm, the essential facts are undisputed. Tina Marie Bryant (the defendant) was a resident of Calvert County, Maryland in August 2015. She had become so deeply depressed by the loss of her job and the recent sudden death of her mother that she resolved to end her life. On August 8, 2015, after taking a .45 caliber semi-automatic pistol and a clip of ammunition from the home of a friend, she drove to Harrisonburg, Virginia, intending to die by suicide there. As a witness in her own defense at trial, she testified that she loved the mountains and wanted to see them again on the last day of her life.

         The office of the Sheriff of Calvert County was made aware of her departure, her expressed intentions and her possession of the firearm. By a process of "pinging" on her cellular telephone, the Maryland authorities were able to determine her approximate location, which proved to be in Rockingham County, Virginia. The Maryland authorities relayed this information to the office of the Sheriff of Rockingham County, requesting a "welfare check" on the defendant and advising that she was "mentally unstable" and in possession of a firearm. Rockingham County Sheriff's deputies located the defendant's car parked outside the Country Inn and Suites, a hotel located in the City of Harrisonburg on the county line.

         Inquiring at the front desk, the deputies ascertained that the defendant was registered in Room 104, on the ground floor. The deputies went to that room and knocked on the door. There was no response. At their request, the clerk called the room's telephone but there was no answer. The manager gave them a universal key to unlock the door, but it failed to function. The defendant, evidently hearing the activities outside the door, called out that they should not come in, that she had a gun and if they came in she would shoot herself. Her voice sounded "angry" and "upset."

         One of the deputies initiated a conversation with her through the closed door in an effort to calm her. He told her that they wanted only "to see that she was okay so we could try to get her some help." She responded that she was disgusted with life and that she wanted the police to shoot her. As the conversation proceeded, she seemed to become more calm. During this time the hotel staff began evacuating other guests from the rooms adjacent and on the floor above. Other deputies were sent outside the building to observe the interior of the defendant's room through its exterior window.

         Suddenly, the deputies heard a gunshot within the room. The senior deputy present called to her several times: "Are you okay?" After a 15-second silence, she responded: "I'm not hurt." The senior deputy asked her to go put the pistol on the bed and to go to the window and put her hands on the window to enable the deputies outside to be sure that she had put the weapon down. Upon receiving word by radio from the deputies outside that she had complied with that request, the deputies outside the door forced it open and entered the room. The defendant was standing, her arms at her sides, her hands empty. The pistol was on the bed. A hole was visible in the carpet that covered the concrete floor. The fragmented spent round was recovered from the concrete near the hole. She had an injury to her hand that evidently resulted from holding the weapon too close to the slide when it came back after firing to eject the spent cartridge case and load the next round. She offered no resistance and was transported to a hospital.

         In the Circuit Court of Rockingham County, the defendant was indicted for unlawfully discharging a firearm within an occupied building in violation of Code § 18.2-279. At a jury trial, the defendant testified that while the senior deputy was talking to her through the closed door, she had been holding the weapon to her head with her finger on the trigger. At some point, however, she made a split-second decision, motivated by her religious beliefs, to abandon her suicidal intent. She testified that the weapon discharged accidentally while she was trying to put it down. She adamantly denied any intent to fire it.

         Without objection, the court gave the following instruction to the jury, which is adapted from 1 Virginia Model Jury Instructions-Criminal No. G18.100:

The defendant is charged with the crime of discharging a firearm within an occupied building. The Commonwealth must prove beyond a reasonable doubt each of the ...

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