COLUMBIA — In a potentially landmark state court ruling, a South Carolina judge citing the states Stand Your Ground Act has granted immunity from prosecution to a man charged with shooting and killing an unarmed bystander in a Columbia case.
When the defendant fired the shot, he reasonably believed he was being attacked with deadly force directed at his home, said a 12-page order by Circuit Judge Maite Murphy filed Wednesday afternoon.
The case involved the 2010 shooting of Darrell Niles, 17, a Keenan High School student and basketball player, who was across the street in a car when Shannon Scott, then 33, fired his handgun. Shortly before, an SUV filled with youths who had been threatening his 15-year-old daughter drove by his house and they fired shots, according to testimony in the case.
Smith then saw Niles 1992 Honda, and, believing its occupants posed a danger, fired his gun from his front yard across the street, hitting Niles in the head with a .380 bullet, killing him instantly. No evidence indicated Niles was a threat to Scott or his daughter.
Fifth Circuit Solicitor Dan Johnson has appealed Murphys ruling to the S.C. Supreme Court. Johnson declined comment Wednesday, citing the cases appeal status.
A key legal issue in the case is whether the states 2006 Stand Your Ground law will protect people who, although in legitimate fear for their lives, also happen to be bad shots or otherwise unintentionally wind up killing bystanders.
According to Scotts attorney, Todd Rutherford of Columbia, the law gives people in fear of their lives broad rights.
Judge Murphy followed the law, said Rutherford, a Democratic state representative who in 2006 helped write the law.
Someone like Scott who is put in a life-and-death situation cannot be expected to shoot straight always because they are not supposed to have their life in jeopardy," Rutherford said at Scotts three-day immunity hearing in mid-August.
The hearing was held right before Scott was to stand trial on murder charges for killing Niles. At that hearing, Scott took the witness stand and acknowledged firing the shot that killed Niles.
Scott was faced with what he thought was an imminent threat" from Niles car, Rutherford said at that hearing.
After all, Rutherford told the judge, it was 1:30 am. in the morning, and Scott with no police around 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 18, 2010, Rutherford said.
According to evidence in the case, Scotts daughter telephoned him on her way home to tell him she was being followed. Scott met his daughter and some friends outside his house, told them to go in and lie down on the kitchen floor and then went around to the front yard with a gun.
It was 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, Rutherford said.
Rutherfords view of events was challenged by 5th Circuit Assistant Solicitor April Sampson, who presented evidence hoping to show Scott had no idea who he was firing at.
Sampson said during the August hearing that if Murphy granted immunity to Scott it would be be the first time any state in this Union has granted immunity for killing an innocent bystander in a Stand Your Ground case.
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. South Carolina would turn into the Wild, Wild West if fearful people can go around shooting just about anyone, Sampson said.
Under the states Stand Your Ground law, people have the right to use deadly force against an assailant. However, the law doesnt specifically say a person using deadly force can kill a bystander by mistake and be immune from any criminal prosecution.
The matter is being aired elsewhere. This week in Florida, the state legislature was considering amendments to that states Stand Your Ground law that would make people who shoot and kill someone by mistake while claiming Stand Your Ground protections liable for the killing.
During the August hearing, Rutherford said the real villains in this case were the carload of teens that followed Scotts 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.
If a store owner shoots and mistakenly kills a bystander during an armed robbery, Rutherford said, the store owner isnt charged with the bystanders murder, but the robber.
During the hearing, Murphy heard conflicting testimony as to whether anyone fired at Scott while he was in his front yard that night.
Rutherford said Niles death is tragic but, He simply ended up being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Niles might have had honorable intentions, Rutherford said, but the teen put himself in danger by following my clients daughter home at 1:30 in the morning.
Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott, an opponent of giving people broad latitude to kill others under the authority of a Stand Young Ground law, said, In this military, you would call Niles death collateral damage.
I guess the question is, How much collateral damage do we want to have?
Reach Monk at (803) 771-8344.