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Stand Your Ground faces test in S.C.

Shannon Scott argues he should not be prosecuted for shooting and killing an unarmed Keenan High School basketball player. In his Stand Your Ground argument in a Richland County courtroom last week, Scott and his attorney, Todd Rutherford, said Scott fired his weapon from his front yard to protect his daughter, who was being chased by people trying to hurt her.

It’s terrible, but Darrell Niles, a 17-year-old innocent bystander, just got in the way, they said.

“He simply ended up being in the wrong place at the wrong time,” Rutherford said.

Scott, 36, said he should be granted immunity from going to trial on murder charges. But others told the judge that if Scott isn’t prosecuted, South Carolina will move one step closer to becoming a free-fire zone where people shoot and kill innocent bystanders with impunity.

According to all the evidence in a pre-trial hearing on the issue, Niles was across a street and in no way threatening Scott when the teen took a .380 bullet to the head in April 2010 near Scott’s house off Beltline Boulevard near Two Notch Road.

Niles died almost instantly.

Scott has admitted firing the shot that killed Niles, but argues he should not be prosecuted since he believed himself in danger from other people at the time he killed Niles by mistake.

The case’s final outcome could significantly broaden the state’s “Stand Your Ground” law, which, when passed in 2006, expanded traditional notions of self-defense by giving people a broad right to use deadly force not just on their own property but whenever and wherever they feel threatened in a place they have a right to be, a prosecutor told Judge Maite Murphy.

If Murphy grants immunity to Scott it would be “the first time any state in this union” has granted immunity for killing an innocent bystander in a Stand Your Ground case, 5th Circuit Assistant Solicitor April Sampson told Murphy.

“If this law were to be applied the way (Scott) wants to apply it, he could shoot a 4-year-old playing in her front yard and still be immune from prosecution,” Sampson said.

“If you want to make it the Wild, Wild West … (to) say you don’t have to act with care when you say you’re scared, that you can shoot someone who is not a threat to you,” Sampson told Murphy.

But Scott’s lawyer, Rutherford, urged the judge to give his client immunity.

At time of the shooting, about 1:30 a.m., Scott was in fear of his life, and he was the only one who could take action against a carload of menacing teen “women thugs” who had just followed his daughter and her girlfriends home on the night of April 17, 2010, Rutherford said.

On their way home, his daughter telephoned Scott to tell him they were being followed. He met them outside and told them to go and lie down on the kitchen floor while he went outside with a pistol.

It is unreasonable to expect that Scott is required “to go back into his house, in his castle … and hope that the cavalry (police) are going to come … . All that matters is that Mr. Scott felt his life was in jeopardy. We know that because everyone there felt their lives were in jeopardy,” Rutherford said.

Rutherford acknowledged that Niles was an innocent bystander, who in all probability was on the scene because he intended to help Scott’s daughter.

The real villains in this case, Rutherford said, are the carload of teens that followed Scott’s daughter and her friends home from a club. They should be charged with “felony murder,” a charge that means that they caused Niles’ death, even though Scott was the one who put the bullet in his head, Rutherford said.

That is the same principle applied in cases in which a store owner who shoots and mistakenly kills a bystander during an armed robbery, Rutherford said.

The store owner isn’t charged with the bystander’s murder, but the robber is, Rutherford said.

When someone like Scott, in fear for his life, shoots his gun, “they cannot be expected to shoot straight always because they are not supposed to have their life in jeopardy,” Rutherford said.

Scott was fearful of a drive-by at the time he fired his gun at Niles’ 1992 Honda, and he was “faced with what he thought was an imminent threat” from Niles’ car, Rutherford said.

Murphy also heard conflicting testimony as to whether anyone fired at Scott while he was in the front yard that night. According to police, who took statements from people at the scene that night, Scott fired first.

However, Rutherford presented witnesses who said someone fired a shot at Scott before he fired.

“Should he have gone back in (the house) while people were shooting at him? That is exactly what the General Assembly said you do not have to do,” said Rutherford, a state representative who voted for the 2006 Stand Your Ground law.

In an initial interview that night, Scott didn’t give officers his name, nor did he tell officers he had fired a gun that night, Sampson said.

And Sampson depicted Scott as a man primed to kill. “He had a sign in his window saying ‘Fight Crime — Shoot First.’ ”

But Rutherford said, “All we know is that Mr. Scott stood there in his yard, the only thing between his children and people intending to do them harm.”

However Judge Murphy rules, Scott’s murder trial is likely to be delayed, perhaps for many months. That’s because both Rutherford and Sampson said they would appeal.

In the past six weeks, two other Richland County murder trials have been delayed indefinitely because defendants, both of whom have admitted killing their victims, have raised the immunity defense and their cases are now on appeal.

They are:

James Bethel Jr., charged with murder in the Aug. 18, 2012, shooting death of Gawayne Franklin at Mr. Lucky’s club on Broad River Road.

Greg Isaac, charged with murder in the 2005 shooting death of Antonio Corbitt after breaking into Corbitt’s apartment at 3200 Fernandina Road.

Isaac said he was threatened by his fellow burglar with death if he didn’t go along with the crime. And he said Corbitt was attacking him.

According to the S.C. Supreme Court’s clerk’s office, nine of the 23 criminal cases now before the Supreme Court involve appeals from Stand Your Ground hearings.

Those nine immunity cases come from across the state.

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