Two high-profile shooting cases in the Columbia area that have little in common other than geography and tragic collateral damage are generating concerns that South Carolina’s Stand Your Ground law, part of the Protections of Persons and Property Act, will turn Columbia into the Mogadishu of the Midlands, a free-fire zone.
The outcry has been seen on social media and in the comments sections of news websites, as well as in Kevin Fisher’s Oct. 16 City Watch column for Free Times, to the irritation of some attorneys we spoke to this week. They called the fears unfounded and born of limited legal knowledge.
The first case involved a father, Shannon Scott, who, according to The State’s John Monk, fatally shot an unarmed high school student as the boy sat alone in a parked car across the street. The father was responding to shots allegedly fired at or near his home by female students who had terrorized his daughter. Under Stand Your Ground, a judge granted the father immunity from prosecution because “he reasonably believed he was being attacked with deadly force directed at his home.”
Then, on Oct. 13 on Harden Street in Five Points, Michael Juan Smith, a 20- or 21-year-old black male, a felon, shot Martha Childress, a white freshman at the University of South Carolina. She was not his target, but she was paralyzed.
Shortly afterward, Fisher wrote: “When it comes to the thug who (allegedly) fired the shot, almost taking the life of 18-year-old Martha Childress and forever changing it, a recent and ridiculous South Carolina circuit court ruling could actually provide him a legal defense under the state’s Stand Your Ground law,” referring to the Scott case.
The Childress’ attorney, Joe McCulloch — who usually works as a defense attorney — called Free Times last week, echoing Fisher’s concern. He says the state legislature should remove Stand Your Ground language from the law and reassert the citizen’s duty to avoid provocation and retreat when possible and to employ proportionate force against a perceived threat — meaning one shouldn’t take a gun to a knife fight.
“There are a lot of people who believe that when they walk out of their front door or walk down Main Street that, if somebody threatens them, they ought to be allowed to kill them without any duty to try to avoid a problem,” McCulloch said.
Several other defense attorneys approached by Free Times scoffed at such a suggestion. Eventually, Luke Shealey, a former Richland County public defender now in private practice with considerable Stand Your Ground experience, agreed to address the matter on the record.
“It is a tragic situation but I don’t know if you can jump ahead and say, ‘This guy is going to get off scot-free because of Stand Your Ground, so we need to do away with Stand Your Ground,” he said, adding that George Zimmerman’s attorney’s never even employed Stand Your Ground in his defense in the Trayvon Martin case, despite all the media hype over it.
To Shealey, the two cases’ stark differences, which make a successful Stand Your Ground claim unlikely, are readily apparent: Scott was on his own property; Smith was partying in Five Points while unlawfully possessing a weapon. Scott heard a gunshot, reasonable indication he faced a deadly threat; Smith parent’s told the press that their son had been taunted.
The bottom line, Shealey says, is that guys carrying weapons around town unlawfully are not concerned with Stand Your Ground. “We should not as citizens, in my opinion, lose our fundamental right to protect ourselves because of a few bad apples that are highly publicized.”
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