Justice

South Carolina Prosecutors Say Stand Your Ground Doesn’t Apply To Victims Of Domestic Violence

CREDIT: Shutterstock

domestic abuse

CREDIT: Shutterstock

South Carolina is one of more than 20 states that has passed an expansive Stand Your Ground law authorizing individuals to use deadly force in self-defense. The law has been used to protect a man who killed an innocent bystander while pointing his gun at several teens he called “women thugs.” But prosecutors in Charleston are drawing the line at domestic violence.

In the cases of women who claim they feared for their lives when confronted with violent intimate abusers, prosecutors say the Stand Your Ground law shouldn’t apply.

“(The Legislature’s) intent … was to provide law-abiding citizens greater protections from external threats in the form of intruders and attackers,” prosecutor Culver Kidd told the Post and Courier. “We believe that applying the statute so that its reach into our homes and personal relationships is inconsistent with (its) wording and intent.”

Most recently, Kidd raised this argument in vigorously pursuing a murder case against Whitlee Jones, whose screams for help as her boyfriend pulled her down the street by her hair prompted a neighbor to call the cops during a 2012 altercation. When the officer arrived that night, the argument had already ended and Jones had fled the scene. While she was out, Jones decided to leave her boyfriend, Eric Lee, and went back to the house to pack up her things. She didn’t even know the police officer had been there earlier that night, her lawyer Mary Ford explained. She packed a knife to protect herself, and as she exited the house, she says Lee attacked her and she stabbed Lee once in defense. He died, although Jones says she did not intend to kill him.

On October 3, Circuit Judge J.C. Nicholson sided with Jones and granted her Stand Your Ground immunity, meaning she is exempt from trial on the charge. In response to Kidd’s argument that individuals could not invoke Stand Your Ground to defend against violence in their own homes, Nicholson said that dynamic would create the “nonsensical result” that a victim of domestic abuse could defend against an attacker outside of the home, but not inside the home – where the most vicious domestic violence is likely to occur.

Kidd is unsatisfied with this reasoning, and is appealing the case to argue that Jones and other defendants like her can’t invoke the Stand Your Ground law so long as they are in their home. The Post and Courier reports that there are two other similar cases coming up the pike that are being pursued by the same prosecutor’s office. In one, a judge who dismissed a murder charge against a women who stabbed a roommate attacking her called the charge “appalling.” In another, the defendant’s attorney plans to ask for a Stand Your Ground hearing.

Solicitor Scarlett Wilson, the top prosecutor for that office, is also siding with Kidd. Wilson and Kidd do have a legal basis for their arguments. South Carolina is one of several states that has two self-defense provisions. One known as the Castle Doctrine authorizes occupants to use deadly force against intruders. Recently, the South Carolina Supreme Court ruled that this provision could not apply to fellow occupants of the home, in a case involving roommates, although that ruling was since withdrawn and the case is being re-heard this week. The Stand Your Ground law contains a separate provision that authorizes deadly force in self-defense against grave bodily harm or death in another place “where he has a right to be.” Prosecutors are arguing that neither of these laws permit one occupant of a home to use deadly force against another. But as Nicholson points out, this interpretation would yield the perverse result that both self-defense provisions explicitly exempt domestic abusers when they perpetrate violence within their own home.

The Post and Courier, which originally reported prosecutors’ position, has been doing a series on domestic violence over the past few months, in which it found that women are dying at a rate of one every 12 days from domestic abuse in South Carolina, a state “awash in guns, saddled with ineffective laws and lacking enough shelters for the battered … a state where the deck is stacked against women trapped in the cycle of abuse.” More than 70 percent of those who kill their spouse had “multiple prior arrests on those charges” and the majority spent just days in jail.

It is in that context that the Post and Courier gave front page treatment to another strike against domestic victims in Stand Your Ground laws, even as those who engage in what many consider vigilante killings are protected by the law. The man granted immunity for killing an innocent bystander, Shannon Anthony Scott, reportedly had a sign posted in his window that read, “Fight Crime – Shoot First.”

Lee, the victim in Jones’ case, had previously been arrested when “a woman said he smashed her flower pot and shattered her bedroom window with a rock during a fit of rage” and had a prior conviction for property a property crime.

Jones said she feared for her life. And those like her who defend themselves against domestic abuse shouldn’t need Stand Your Ground laws to raise a claim of self-defense. Most states, including South Carolina, have longstanding court precedent that permits individuals to raise claims of self-defense in cases where their life is threatened. And those common law claims are one of the reasons many opponents argue that the expansive protection of Stand Your Ground laws is not needed, and gives those who turn to force too much legal cover. But one of the demonstrated flaws of Stand Your Ground laws is that their imposition has been arbitrary, and allowed immunity in many more cases involving white shooters and black victims. In cases in which women have invoked Stand Your Ground laws, an MSNBC analysis found that women invoking the Stand Your Ground defense against white men succeeded in only about 2.6 percent of cases (2.9 percent of the woman was also white). The disparity of Stand Your Ground cases came to national attention with the case of Marissa Alexander, who was sentenced to 20 years in jail for firing a warning shot against her alleged abuser. She was denied Stand Your Ground immunity.