Prison sentence for single, fatal punch at Summerville-area bar poses questions about assault law
The Post and Courier
The one time that Michael David Sigler punched a man was enough to send the 41-year-old to prison until mid-2017.
Solicitor David Pascoe has pointed to portions of assault law that have created problems for prosecutors.
Senate Bill 273, for which Pascoe said he provided input, would adjust wording in the laws governing the elements of assault and battery of a high and aggravated nature, as well as first-degree assault and battery, when a deadly weapon is used.
Specifically, it simplifies the definition of “moderate bodily injury,” which now makes it difficult for prosecutors to prove the crimes because of the various medical determinations it requires.
Current definition: “Injury requiring treatment to an organ system of the body other than the skin, muscles and connective tissues of the body, except when there is penetration of the skin, muscles, and connective tissues that require surgical repair of a complex nature or when treatment of the injuries requires the use of regional or general anesthesia.”
Proposed definition: “Injury that involves loss of consciousness or that requires medical treatment but does not cause a substantial risk of death or which does not cause serious, permanent disfigurement or protracted loss or impairment of the function of a bodily
member or organ.”
The bill has two sponsors and was assigned in early February to the Senate’s Judiciary Subcommittee.
Some relatives of James Beatty, who died after suffering the blow in a Summerville-area bar, wanted a stiffer penalty.
Assault and battery of a high and aggravated nature carries between zero and 20 years in prison. Its elements are defined by law:
1. Act results in great bodily injury (substantial risk of death, disfigurement or impairment).
2. Act is accomplished by means likely to produce death or great bodily injury.
But prosecutors said the case shows the difficulty of finding an assault or homicide charge that’s appropriate for such a unique case when a suspect likely didn’t mean to inflict such grave harm with a single punch. They think legislation might help clarify the law.
The jab knocked Beatty out in January 2012. His head hit the floor, and the 51-year-old never awoke.
A plea deal struck April 15 gave Sigler a five-year sentence for assault and battery of a high and aggravated nature, a violent crime indicating that he acted in a way likely to cause critical injury or death. It carries up to 20 years in prison and is not eligible for parole.
Solicitor David Pascoe considered the charge an inventive way to ensure that Sigler serves hard time. The alternative was a charge of involuntary manslaughter, a nonviolent crime that is eligible for parole.
But Pascoe said the 2-year-old statute on aggravated assault that details the crime’s elements might have posed a problem at trial: The law asks whether the act was potentially mortal, not whether it ultimately resulted in death.
A jury could have reduced the count to third-degree assault, which is punishable by only 30 days in jail, by finding that Sigler’s punch wouldn’t have killed Beatty if he had landed differently. Or, the court could have ruled that assault laws were not even applicable and convicted Sigler of involuntary manslaughter.
He could have avoided prison altogether under those lesser charges.
“When he sucker-punched someone, he should have known that anything could have happened,” said Jack Beatty, 60, the victim’s brother from Hershey, Pa. “Jim was never able to defend himself.”
It started as a “crusade” for him, he said, after gunmen shot at two local lawmen. Bullets missed the officers, so their assailants faced only a misdemeanor that carries a maximum 10-year prison sentence and a chance for parole.
The law created new sentences for attempted murder and for the charge Sigler faced, and it eliminated parole for the crimes.
That’s the “beauty” of the new law, Pascoe said. But the “ugly,” he added, is in the difficulty of proving whether Sigler’s punch could routinely cause serious harm.
He’s fighting for a new bill in the state Senate that would more clearly define the elements of an assault.
“The question for the jury might have been: Does one punch constitute an act that would likely result in death or great bodily injury?” Pascoe said. “The answer is usually no. Usually, people don’t die from one punch.”
Factoring in the possibility of an unfavorable trial verdict, Sigler pleaded guilty and avoided the maximum sentence.
First Circuit Public Defender Mark Leiendecker, whose office represented Sigler, said the law’s use in such cases also poses questions for defense lawyers, who must inform clients that the aggravated assault charge could expose them to two decades behind bars.
Neither of the attorneys could point to any recent cases like Sigler’s, feeding their uncertainty about what would happen at trial.
“Any number of things could have happened,” Leiendecker said. “You have to take everything into consideration.”
Path to justice
His sentence stemmed from a disagreement at the former Loco Joe’s bar on Miles Jamison Road.
Beatty helped break up a fight between two women. He flicked a cigarette that just missed one of the women, a move that his friends think inflamed Sigler.
Sigler walked inside and punched Beatty. He was already unconscious when his head hit the floor. The grandfather and Navy veteran died eight days later.
Dorchester County Sheriff’s Office investigators didn’t classify the case as murder because they couldn’t prove that Sigler intended to kill the man.
Beatty’s relatives pointed to Sigler’s history as an indicator of malicious behavior.
He had at least five convictions on various degrees of assault. When he punched Beatty, he was on probation for roughing up a former girlfriend, then wrestling with a Charleston policewoman who responded to the fight.
Beatty’s family members said they asked Judge Diane Goodstein to hand down a longer sentence.
But Assistant Solicitor Russell Hilton, the prosecuting attorney, said the deal was the safest bet to achieve the justice they sought.
“There does need to be some clarification of the law,” Hilton said. “We just didn’t want this case to be the one that’s overturned because the law isn’t clear.”