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Supreme Court upholds dismissal of murder charge in North Charleston self-defense case

By Andrew Knapp, The Post and Courier

The state’s highest court said Wednesday that a North Charleston woman legally used deadly force in 2012 when she fatally stabbed her boyfriend at their home, a ruling that helps clarify how South Carolina’s “stand your ground” law applies to domestic violence.

A trial judge in Charleston had dismissed the murder charge against 26-year-old Whitlee Jones, who claimed immunity from prosecution under the S.C. Protection of Persons and Property Act. The law allows people in certain situations to use force when faced with serious injury.

Jones argued that her boyfriend, Eric Lee, 29, had assaulted her during a fight over a cellphone and dragged her down a street by her hair. As she packed up to leave him for good, Jones said Lee confronted her again. Near the doorway, she stabbed him once in the heart with a knife that she had put in her bra for self-defense.

She became the first of three North Charleston women to be charged with murder during a two-year span after stabbing a boyfriend or a roommate. Judges dismissed charges against all of them.

But the 9th Circuit Solicitor’s Office appealed the judge’s decision in Jones’ case, arguing that the law doesn’t apply to a confrontation between two people who live together when the encounter happens in their home.

In its published opinion Wednesday, justices at the S.C. Supreme Court rejected that interpretation of the law and affirmed the trial judge’s ruling. It sets a precedent for how judges should handle similar cases.

“We believe a decision that prohibits a person, who is attacked in his or her residence, from seeking immunity under the act would not only be in direct contravention of the provisions of the act but would undoubtedly infringe on the person’s Second Amendment right to bear arms,” the justices said in the unanimous decision. “Our decision is also aligned with the majority of jurisdictions in the United States that apply ‘stand your ground’ laws to protect victims of domestic violence who are, in general, cohabitants in a residence.”

The 2006 law extended the traditional “castle doctrine,” the legal concept that says residents should be allowed to defend themselves from burglars, to “another place” where people are allowed to be. The “stand your ground” reference typically refers to those places outside the home.

In interpreting the law, courts in South Carolina have allowed defendants arguing self-defense to ask for their charge to be dropped in a hearing before trial.

But 9th Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson and Assistant Solicitor Culver Kidd contended that the law’s wording made it seem that the protection didn’t apply to a confrontation between live-in partners in their home. They called on lawmakers and courts to clarify whether those people should be able to ask for an immunity hearing. In many situations, Kidd said in court filings, the law had become “a potential license to kill.”

Jones was arrested in November 2012, but Circuit Judge J.C. Nicholson dismissed her murder charge in October 2014.

At the Supreme Court in January, the state Attorney General’s Office argued the appeal of Nicholson’s order. Chief Appellate Defender Robert Dudek represented Jones.

In their ruling Wednesday, the justices invited the Legislature to clarify the law and determine whether every defendant claiming self-defense should get a pretrial hearing.

But they said the law did apply to Jones, writing that she “was attacked in her own home,” a place where she had a right to be.

The court acknowledged that legal scholars have debated about whether “stand your ground” laws should apply to domestic episodes. But in siding with Jones, it cited past opinions, including one declaring that “a battered woman who acts while on her own premises has no duty to retreat.”

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