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Local stabbing cases may shape ‘stand your ground’ defense

By Andrew Knapp, The Post and Courier

If A’Kara Edwards knew what would happen next, she probably wouldn’t have gone outside with a butcher knife. She wouldn’t have confronted her boyfriend as he beat on her car with a hammer during a drunken outburst.

She would have called North Charleston police instead.

“I wouldn’t be in this situation,” Edwards, 20, said. “Nobody would have died. ... I wouldn’t be locked up.”

Edwards fatally stabbed Alex Whipple, 22, on Aug. 4 after he put up his fists and swung at her. Though she regrets it, Edwards said she doesn’t feel responsible for the death.

She argued during court testimony last week that she was within her rights under the S.C. Protection of Persons and Property Act to use deadly force in self-defense.

But a prosecutor contended that arming herself with a knife and walking outside escalated an already volatile situation that led to Whipple’s death. Nothing Whipple did that day merited Edwards’ response, the prosecutor said.

Opposing attorneys explained their views during a pretrial hearing in which Edwards sought immunity from prosecution. But 9th Circuit Judge Kristi Harrington’s ruling, which should come by Feb. 13, could hinge on some of the same legal questions that have posed challenges to prosecutors in other domestic violence homicides.

The outcomes of the murder case and at least one other in which a North Charleston woman fatally stabbed her allegedly abusive boyfriend could shape how the state’s “stand-your-ground” law applies in domestic relationships. Assistant Solicitor Culver Kidd, who is prosecuting Edwards, and his boss, Solicitor Scarlett Wilson, have said that the Legislature never intended the law to be used in such disputes.

Court battles 

Kidd’s appeal of a circuit judge’s dismissal last year of a murder count for Whitlee Jones has been sent to the S.C. Supreme Court for consideration. The S.C. Attorney General’s Office has taken over the case.

One of the legal arguments he had made to the circuit judge, though, already has been dealt a blow.

The law states that people are presumably in fear for their lives if someone is breaking into their home, business or an occupied car. It doesn’t afford that presumption to people whose attackers also are allowed to be in their home. The statute also extends the self-defense provisions to “another place” people are allowed to be, but Kidd argued that the other place mentioned is somewhere besides the home.

But in a case in which prosecutors made a similar argument, the S.C. Court of Appeals ruled in December that the law also covers people who use deadly force if they’re attacked by a house guest.

Kidd said several questions remain unanswered in Jones’ case. Though her boyfriend, Eric Lee, had been seen dragging her by the hair earlier that evening, prosecutors have questioned whether Lee actually posed a threat when he got in Jones’ way as she later tried to leave their North Charleston home. Jones fatally stabbed Lee, 29.

‘He was scaring me’

But in the most recent case, Kidd said the answer to that question is clear.

Edwards and Whipple were arguing that morning at her family’s Kent Avenue house about why she wasn’t going to work. He was drunk on vodka. She told him to leave but refused to hand over her car keys.

Edwards locked him out, but Whipple banged on the door and shook it, she said. She didn’t grab what Kidd called a “very large butcher knife” until she saw Whipple denting her Ford Five Hundred with a hammer.

“It was my first car that I bought with my own money,” Edwards testified last week. “But that wasn’t what I was fixed on. He was ... scaring me. ... He was acting a little crazy.”

Whipple dropped the hammer when his girlfriend confronted him. But he assumed a fighting stance, Edwards said, and lunged after her.

Edwards was 1 or 2 inches taller and 70 pounds heavier than her boyfriend. But as she talked about the ordeal on the witness stand, the young woman with blond highlights in her hair and clad in a pantsuit spoke softly about how men usually have “more strength and power.”

In her later 911 call, Edwards said that she stabbed Whipple once when he came after her. But she would tell the police that he fell into the knife by accident.

“As he swung and he lunged at me,” she testified, “I flinched, and he got stabbed.”

The knife pierced between Whipple’s ribs and hit his heart. It went 4.4 inches into his chest, an autopsy later revealed.

Once they learned about the wound’s depth and thought about the force that could have been behind it, detectives from the North Charleston Police Department arrested Edwards because the autopsy results seemed inconsistent with the accident she had described, a court filing from Kidd stated.

But Dr. Cynthia Schandl, the forensic pathologist who performed the procedure at Medical University Hospital, testified that she couldn’t rule out that the injury was caused by Whipple lunging into the knife.

Whipple’s mother, Micki Zalatimo, cried as she heard Edwards’ testimony about the stabbing. She thought Edwards had downplayed the force she had put behind the weapon.

“The knife that she used to stab him was huge,” Zalatimo said later, “and the mental picture shall always haunt and hurt me.”

‘Agitating a situation’

Zalatimo, though, has shifted much of her attention to the state’s self-defense law.

The facts of Edwards’ case likely could support only a manslaughter charge, Kidd acknowledged. But she should be faulted, he wrote in a court filing, for “bringing about” and “antagonizing” what would have been “an otherwise garden-variety domestic squabble.”

The law states that people who act in self-defense cannot cause the difficulty that prompts their use of deadly force. Kidd stressed that legal point in front of the judge without calling any police officers or other witnesses to testify. No one could have rebutted Edwards’ account of what happened.

He instead used Edwards’ own story against her.

“Exiting a safe haven and confronting someone ... with a deadly weapon is bringing on that difficulty,” Kidd told the judge. “It’s agitating a situation, which is already volatile.”

But attorney Kevin Holmes of Charleston, who represents Edwards with Dana Fields, said his client never broke the law when she went outside with a knife and told Whipple to go away.

It was the first time Edwards was faced with calling the police on her boyfriend, but she instead decided to go outside to protect herself and her home, Holmes said, and spare him a trip to jail. She can’t be blamed now for saying in hindsight that she would have handled it differently, Holmes added.

“A’Kara Edwards is just the kind of person this law is intended to protect,” the attorney said. “Bottom line is, she had the right to stand her ground.”

Since the stabbing, Zalatimo knew the law would eventually protect the woman who killed her son, but she plans to seek out lawmakers and ask about their intent when they passed it.

“I try not to worry,” Zalatimo said of the outcome of Edwards’ case. “Whatever happens, happens.”

But she insisted that it was a car, not Edwards, that was in danger that summer day. In court last week, Edwards said that instead of repairing it, she had returned the Ford to the lot where she had bought it and walked away.

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