A man is strangled to death in a Colleton County home. Another is gunned down outside a West Columbia house. A third is grazed by a bullet as five rounds rip through his car on James Island.
James Island man fires shots at motorist he accuses of trying to steal from him, published 02/23/11Alleged intruder choked to death, published 02/19/11
All three events occurred this month, and in each case authorities know exactly who inflicted those injuries. But so far, no one has been charged with a crime.
That's because each incident involves a citizen trying to protect his home or property, and the state tends to give great leeway to folks who use deadly force in such situations.
South Carolina is one of more than 20 states to adopt strong "castle doctrine" laws to protect citizens from criminal prosecution and civil liability if they use deadly force to repel an intruder.
In 2006, state lawmakers codified the doctrine, greatly expanding its scope to apply in places other than someone's home. The law now covers store owners defending their businesses, drivers fending off a carjacking and campers confronting unwelcome intruders in the woods.
Advocates argued that the change was necessary because of escalating violent crime and the need to protect innocent victims from facing murder prosecutions. Former state Attorney General Charlie Condon, for one, contended that the law has a been a boon for law-abiding citizens and a great deterrent to criminals.
"I would err on the side of homeowners at all times, and that's what authorities should do," said Condon, who drew national attention in 2001 by declaring an "open season" on home invaders. "I think the message should be clear: If you are going into someone's home to hurt somebody, don't expect the law to protect you."
Opponents counter that wide-ranging castle-doctrine laws like South Carolina's encourage vigilantism and create a dangerous culture of shoot-first and ask questions later, even in the face of minimal threat.
This places not only criminals in jeopardy, they argue, but innocent bystanders as well.
"Where we have a problem is when you take it outside the home and put it in a public arena," said Brian Malte, director of state legislation for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.
"It's very problematic, not only because it is giving a license to shoot someone in public, but you are also giving them legal and civil immunity for any sort of shooting that arises as long as they feel threatened," he said.
South Carolina's law is back in the spotlight after three incidents this month. The first occurred in Lexington County, where a West Columbia homeowner shot and killed a man he caught breaking into his truck on Feb. 14. Authorities declined to prosecute, saying the shooting was in self-defense.
On Feb. 18 a Walterboro homeowner choked the life out of a man who allegedly kicked in the front door and attacked him. The case remains under investigation.
The third incident occurred Tuesday when a James Island man pumped five rounds into a car outside his home after he said he caught the driver trying to steal stereo equipment from his truck.
A bullet grazed the driver's head. Charleston County sheriff's deputies still are investigating and no charges have been filed.
Sheriff Al Cannon said the castle doctrine will be considered, as well as an 1866 law that grants citizens arrest powers in certain situations.
That law gives citizens the power to arrest felons and thieves at night "by efficient means as the darkness and the probability of escape render necessary, even if the life of the person should be taken."
Citizens can exercise those arrest powers if, among other things, the suspect has stolen property in his possession or "being under circumstances which raise just suspicion of his design to steal or to commit some felony, flees when he is hailed."
A 1985 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court limited the use of deadly force by police officers to situations where there is probable cause to believe a fleeing suspect poses a significant risk of death or serious injury to the officer or others.
Cannon said the court did not hold private citizens to that same standard. That is likely by design, as civilians don't have the same level of expertise and training as police officers, he said.
Cannon said he has come across similar cases before. He recalled one several years ago in which a North Charleston man woke to the sound of someone messing with a bicycle chained to an outside door.
He went outside and a teenager took off running. The man shot the teen in the back -- fatally. The homeowner was not charged.
Miller Shealy, a professor at the Charleston School of Law and a former prosecutor, said the citizens' arrest law dates to a time when sheriffs had to round up and deputize posses to assist with apprehending scoundrels.
As written, he said the law "arguably gives the public more rights than the Constitution provides law enforcement personnel" in regard to the use of deadly force.
A national debate
South Carolina is hardly the only state to confront such issues. Pennsylvania is in the midst of a contentious debate over expanding its castle law. Questions about Texas' law surfaced this month after an Odessa resident shot and killed a man he suspected was pilfering from his truck.
And the Columbus (Ohio) Dispatch reported last year that the Buckeye State's castle law was increasingly being used to defend murder suspects as not legally responsible for their deeds.
Geoff Alpert, a University of South Carolina criminology professor, said even when a case pushes the limits of castle laws, it can be difficult to find a jury willing to side with a criminal over a homeowner.
Alpert recalled a Florida case in which a Miami shopkeeper, frustrated with multiple break-ins, electrified a grate over his front door in the mid-1980s. A burglar died after touching the grate. The shopkeeper was arrested on manslaughter charges but a grand jury refused to indict him. He went free.
"No one really cares about criminals who are injured while committing a crime," Alpert said. "It's that kind of issue where it may be wrong, but it has to be really wrong for anyone to be upset about it."
Castle laws differ from state to state, adding to the confusion. Some states, for instance, require citizens first try to flee before resorting to deadly force. South Carolina, by comparison, allows individuals to stand their ground when faced with "intrusion or attack" in a place they have a right to be.
The law, however, does not cover incidents in which an outsider has a legal reason to be on the property, such as a police officer investigating a crime.
In 2005, Florida led the way in expanding self-defense laws with the blessing of the National Rifle Association. South Carolina followed suit a year later, joined by several more states in the intervening years.
Between 2005 and 2009, the number of justifiable homicides by private citizens rose about 33 percent nationwide, from 196 to 261, according to FBI statistics.
The number of justifiable homicides in South Carolina remained relatively flat between 2006, the year the expanded castle law was approved, and 2010, hovering between 8 and 13 killings, according to the State Law Enforcement Division. A total of 52 killings were ruled justifiable during that time, SLED reported.
Siding with citizens
More often than not, local authorities have given the benefit of the doubt to citizens who use deadly force on their home turf.
Such was the case in 2008, when authorities dropped murder and assault charges against a James Island man who fatally stabbed a popular local surfer and wounded two others in a bloody confrontation at his home.
That same year, prosecutors cited the castle doctrine in dropping a murder charge against Stephanie Morosi, a Ladson escort who fatally shot a former roommate when he charged her with a knife in her home.
Morosi said last week that she was shocked when authorities charged her with murder, as she had previously reported being in fear of the man. The charges left a cloud over her life that prevented her from finding a job, she said in an e-mail.
Morosi said she has few regrets about the shooting and still believes in gun ownership. She also doesn't cotton to critics of the castle doctrine. "Opponents are stupid."