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House panel advances “stand your ground” bill

By Andrew Knapp and Cynthia Roldan, The Post and Courier

COLUMBIA — A House panel has advanced a bill that transfers appeals of “stand your ground” hearings directly to the state Supreme Court, and requires prosecutors to prove a defendant’s use of deadly force wasn’t justified.

The bill, which passed the House Judiciary Committee on a unanimous and bipartisan 20-0 vote, clarifies existing law by allowing for immediate appeals to the high court if a judge determines during a pretrial hearing the accused was not justified in their situational response.

It also would require prosecutors to prove the shooting was not justified. Current law requires that defendants must prove they shot in self-defense.

House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford, D-Columbia, said the bill would simply ensure the law does what it was intended to do when it first passed in 2006.

The clarification was needed, Rutherford said, because by allowing for an appeals process before going to trial, defendants won’t have to wait until they’re convicted to appeal.

“What we intended was that someone could defend themselves against people who intend to do them wrong without fear that in defending themselves they would be charged as a crime,” Rutherford said. “This does not provide a get-out-of-jail-free card.”

The law has been used in recent years as a defense in high-profile killings in the Charleston area. Many of the cases posed new legal questions that were argued during pretrial hearings.

Summerville resident Ronald Reid was cleared of a murder charge after he fatally shot a man who had also opened fire in self-defense in June 2013 at North Charleston’s Cycle Gear store. The man had shot two people who had started to beat his friend but also hit Reid, who claimed to have been an innocent bystander to the brawl. When the gunfire was over, three people were dead, and all of the killings were deemed to have been in self-defense.

Prosecutors in the Charleston area also have fought the law’s application to domestic violence incidents in the home. The 9th Circuit Solicitor’s Office has contended that it shouldn’t protect people who kill lovers amid fights at a place where they both live. In those cases, the prosecutors said, the law has become a “license to kill,” and they should go to trial instead of being decided by judges during hearings.

Though the bill passed the House panel with little effort on Tuesday, it has its opponents.

David Ross, executive director of the S.C. Commission on Prosecution Coordination, called the bill “problematic.” Ross said the bill would likely lead to an increase in how long prosecutors have to wait for a case to go to trial because they’d have to wait for the appeals process to be over, Ross said.

“This bill would reinstitute this immediate appeals process, which would delay murder cases,” he added.

It would also make prosecutors’ task in fighting the cases significantly more difficult, said Charlie Condon, a Mount Pleasant attorney and former state attorney general.

In its 2013 ruling in an appeal dubbed State v. Curry, the S.C. Supreme Court gave defendants the burden of proving their self-defense accounts by a “preponderance of the evidence,” or by having the most convincing and likely case. The bill would shift that task to prosecutors, who would have to prove that a use of deadly force was not in self-defense, Condon said.

“So prosecutors would have to get in there and really try to prove a negative, and that can be very challenging depending on the evidence and what witnesses cooperate,” he said. “The presumption will be that the defendant is entitled to immunity.”

In many self-defense cases, a defendant’s testimony is the best piece of evidence, Condon said, and that’s not under prosecutors’ control. Prosecutors have alleged that the law makes it too easy for someone to use force, then later exaggerate the danger they had faced in hopes of justifying their actions.

“This definitely would make the act much more effective for a defendant trying to use it,” Condon said. “I don’t see an imbalance now in how the law is used. But we’ll have to see how this plays out.”

Ninth Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson said she feared the bill would make the state’s court system more inefficient. She would support a new provision in the law that doesn’t shift the burden of proof but sets deadlines for defendants to claim immunity. By bringing up the defense under the law, a defendant can significantly delay a trial, she said.

Wilson added that when a decision in an immunity hearing doesn’t go the defendant’s way, the bill would let him or her promptly file an appeal, which would contribute to the problem.

“With no time limitations and the right to immediate appeal, defendants will be able to obtain substantial and crippling delays for our criminal justice system, which is already struggling to move cases efficiently,” she said. “These immunity claims will become a delay tactic that further clogs the system.”

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