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Appeal in N. Charleston stabbing may decide how ‘stand your ground’ law applies in domestic killings

By Andrew Knapp, The Post and Courier

South Carolina’s “stand your ground” law should not protect someone who kills a romantic partner in self- defense if the deadly confrontation happens in a home they share.

The law states that a person is presumed to have a fear of death and can use force if an intruder is trying to enter a home. This presumption does not apply if the person “against whom the deadly force is used has the right to be (there) or is a lawful resident.”

It also states that a person who is acting lawfully when attacked “in another place where he has a right to be,” including his place of business, can stand his ground and use force to prevent serious injury or a violent crime.

That’s the view that local prosecutors have portrayed in a renewed bid to pursue charges against a North Charleston woman who fatally stabbed her boyfriend less than an hour after he dragged her down the street by her hair in 2012.

Citing the woman’s self-defense account, a judge granted her immunity from prosecution, but the prosecutors’ appeal could turn on two words in the law: another place.

The terms show up in the S.C. Protection of Persons and Property Act, and the prosecutors think they mean that the statute should not apply to a confrontation between people living in the home where the encounter occurs. Only when it happens in “another place” can the act be used, the authorities contend.

The prosecutors’ hope is to thwart abuse of the law by people who act violently in their own homes only to later exaggerate the danger they faced. If the law doesn’t apply to such situations, 12 jurors — instead of one judge — would decide whether an account is believable.

Any ruling is likely to affect similar prosecutions. A decision in the woman’s favor could bolster defenses in future cases. A ruling for the state could offer more solid legal grounds for prosecutors to fight dubious claims of self-defense.

“You can look at this act and see what the intent was, but it certainly has the potential of really being abused,” said Kevin Holmes, a Charleston attorney who has represented women in such predicaments. “A ruling barring prosecution can sort of leave the family of the deceased feeling short-tripped.”

But a successful appeal, he said, “would make it much more difficult to apply this statute in any kind of domestic violence situation.”

The S.C. Court of Appeals heard oral arguments Wednesday. Justices typically issue opinions weeks later.

It’s not the first time the issue has cropped up in the Charleston area, and it’s likely to come up again.

Authorities are still pondering whether to pursue charges in the area’s most recent domestic violence killing with the same themes. In October, Teonna Cooper, 20, told police that she fatally shot her boyfriend, Parrish Greene, 22, inside their West Ashley home after he choked her.

Of three earlier killings in which prosecutors lost bids to pursue charges against women, the circumstances in 26-year-old Whitlee Jones’ case better pose the legal question that Assistant Solicitor Culver Kidd and his boss, 9th Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson, want answered.

Jones and her boyfriend, Eric Lee, 29, were quarreling outside their North Charleston home in November 2012. Lee grabbed Jones’ hair and dragged her down the street.

A neighbor saw the commotion and called 911. A police officer responded but left after finding no ongoing struggle.

Less than an hour later, Jones went back to gather her things and leave Lee for good. As she packed, she came across a knife and tucked it into her bra.

Jones “had every reason to believe (Lee) was going to do something to her again,” her appeals attorney later wrote. “And that’s why she grabbed that knife in self-defense, just in case.”

Lee grabbed her as she tried to leave, shook her and repeated, “It’s your fault,” she would later tell investigators. She pulled out the knife and stabbed him in the chest. In court testimony, none of her friends who were waiting outside could recall seeing Lee touch Jones. But Circuit Judge J.C. Nicholson granted her immunity.

Kidd and Wilson filed paperwork to appeal. They did not respond to a recent request for comment.

Part of the written arguments, which were filed by Assistant Attorney General Alphonso Simon Jr., contends that the facts don’t support Jones’ self-defense account.

But the lead focus rests on the law’s wording.

The act is built on a presumption that people fear for their lives if someone is breaking into their homes, cars or businesses. They lose that presumption, though, when their attackers are allowed to be there.

But the General Assembly also extended the act to “another place.” If people are in a place where they’re allowed to be when they’re attacked, they can use force if it’s necessary to prevent serious injury.

Those two words are “clear and unambiguous,” according to the appeal. By using them, legislators meant for the statute to apply to somewhere besides the home, the appeal stated.

So, the argument contends, Jones should not be afforded the law’s benefit of the doubt because she was at home, and the person she killed also lived there. But in fighting the appeal, Chief Appellate Defender Robert Dudek of the S.C. Commission on Indigent Defense went back to the first decision in the case. Nicholson said the state’s position would “create a nonsensical result,” allowing the woman to defend herself against a lover’s attack in the street but not in their own home.

A spokesman for Attorney General Alan Wilson, whose office is handling the appeal, declined to comment on the case’s implications.

Robby Robbins, a Summerville attorney who spent time as a prosecutor in the 1st Circuit, said the law was designed to extend the legal principles of self-defense to every place a person is allowed to be. The appeal’s argument isn’t consistent with that, he said.

“So, if she killed him as he was dragging her down the road, that qualifies as another place, and that’s OK?” Robbins said. “But if she killed him in the foyer and because he’s a legal resident, that’s not OK? I just don’t think that really lines up with the law.”

The law requires cases with clear self-defense implications to be heard first by a judge, who decides whether a case should go to trial. The ultimate purpose of the appeal is to put Jones’ story in front of a jury, Robbins said.

“But if you’ve got that one judge making this call, it’s your job as a prosecutor to show him or her what makes this story unbelievable,” he said. “It sounds like the judge listened to this lady, examined the evidence and made the determination that she was very believable.”

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