SC high court limits ‘Stand Your Ground’ defense

jmonk@thestate.comAugust 21, 2013 

  • About the law

    South Carolina’s 2006 Stand Your Ground laws broadened traditional self-defense claims by saying:

    •  That a person didn’t have to retreat and could use deadly force outside his home, as in his business or car, if he had a “reasonable fear of imminent peril.”

    •  That a person who uses such deadly force is immune from prosecution in many circumstances.

    •  That if a court finds a person is immune from prosecution after using deadly force and then faces a civil action, the court will award costs associated with that civil action to the person who used deadly force.

— The state’s highest court sent a message Wednesday that even in a strong gun-rights state like South Carolina, it will put limits in “Stand Your Ground” cases when a person claims immunity from prosecution after killing someone else.

Essentially, the S.C. Supreme Court ruled, someone who kills or wounds another and invokes the Stand Your Ground law to get immunity and avoid prosecution can’t delay his trial by an appeal.

Up until now, any person whose Stand Your Ground claim of immunity was denied by a judge, could put off the trial indefinitely while appealing the judge’s ruling to the Supreme Court. Now, any appeals based on a judge’s denial of Stand Your Ground immunity will have to come after a person undergoes trial and is found guilty.

The unanimous decision by the court – which currently has nine Stand Your Ground immunity case appeals before it – was written by Chief Justice Jean Toal and drew praise and criticism.

“The court has cleared up a matter that defense attorneys have used to delay trials,” said Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott, who had another murder trial derailed last month for such a Stand Your Ground appeal.

But Lexington lawyer Jack Duncan, president of the S.C. Association of Defense Lawyers, said people claiming immunity under Stand Your Ground should not have to undergo a trial if they might eventually have the case overturned by the S.C. Supreme Court. The high court could decide the person deserves to have immunity, he said.

“All other states I know of that have a Stand Your Ground law don’t require a defendant who is claiming immunity to undergo a trial before their immunity claim is heard on appeal,” Duncan said.

The high court’s Wednesday decision was based on legal grounds and avoided the thorny circumstances of the particular Richland County case in question of Greg Isaac, 26.

In an alleged 2005 home invasion in Richland County, Isaac wound up killing the apartment’s occupant, Antonio Corbitt, according to Isaac’s own testimony in his July immunity hearing before Judge Clifton Newman.

While admitting in that hearing to being the triggerman, Isaac told the judge he didn’t intend to kill Corbitt. But Corbitt appeared to be reaching for a gun, Isaac told Newman, so he shot him.

That assertion amused the judge, who denied Isaac’s motion for immunity from prosecution.

“It borders on the preposterous for the defendant in this case to claim he was acting lawfully and had the right to kill Mr. Corbitt,” Newman said in open court.

Isaac’s trial, in July, was halted on its second day when Isaac’s attorney, Mark Schnee of Columbia, got an emergency order from the Supreme Court to take up the immunity issue, after Newman denied Isaac’s request. It is rare for the Supreme Court to stop a trial once it has started.

Wednesday, the high court said it was denying the appeal because Stand Your Ground, which became state law in 2006, could not be applied retroactively to Isaac’s 2005 case.

The court also said if a judge denies a pretrial request for immunity under Stand Your Ground, the trial will begin at that time, and the defendant can appeal at the trial’s end if he is found guilty.

Immunity from prosecution hearings, and a judge’s ruling on immunity, are held at the beginning of a trial, before a jury is seated.

Duncan, of the S.C. Association of Defense Lawyers, noted Associate Justice Costa Pleicones, who sided with the majority in Wednesday’s opinion on one legal ground, had said he disagreed with requiring someone “to endure a criminal prosecution” before a final decision is made on the immunity issue.

Pleicones, who is running against Toal for S.C. Chief Justice next year, might have just scored some points with Libertarian gun-rights supporters in the S.C. General Assembly, Duncan said. The 170-member Legislature elects judges and justices.

South Carolina’s Stand Your Ground law broadened the traditional right of self-defense inside one’s home, holding that one can also refuse to retreat and use deadly force in one’s vehicle or business and perhaps other places as well, as long as one feels threatened.

People have long had a right to use deadly force to defend their homes, but before the Stand Your Ground law, people had a duty to retreat, if they could, if they were in places other than their homes or businesses.

The Stand Your Ground law now lets people use deadly force as a first resort just about anywhere if they feel threatened.

Isaac’s trial is now scheduled to begin Sept. 30. Schnee, his attorney, said Wednesday because Stand Your Ground can’t be applied retroactively, he won’t be able to use it at the upcoming trial. However, he added Isaac still has various issues of self-defense and being forced to act under duress that can be used at trial.

For years, the Richland County Sheriff’s Department didn’t know who killed Corbitt.

But last year, fingerprint experts reviewing evidence found a fingerprint in the Corbitt files they linked to Isaac. The fingerprint had been lifted from Corbitt’s apartment after he was shot and killed.

In spring 2012, Lott’s detectives picked up Isaac, who confessed to the shooting. Isaac also named Tavares World and another man, Vernorris Dixon, as being involved. The three all face charges of murder, attempted armed robbery, first-degree burglary and attempted armed robbery. Isaac is the first to be tried.

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