Sheldon Singletary and the man who killed him on April 19, 2010, were friends.
About the law
The S.C. Protection of Persons and Property Act was signed into law June 9, 2006, and recognizes that a person's home is his castle. The law also extended the doctrine to include a vehicle and place of business. It authorizes the lawful use of deadly force under certain circumstances against an intruder or attacker.
Under the law, there is no duty to retreat if:
The person is in a place he has a right to be.
The person is not engaged in unlawful activity.
The use of deadly force is necessary to prevent death, great bodily injury or a violent crime.
A person who lawfully uses deadly force is immune from criminal prosecution and civil lawsuits, unless the person against whom deadly force was used is a police officer acting in an official capacity and that he properly identifies himself as such or the person using deadly force knows or reasonably should have known that the person is an officer.
Source: State Law Enforcement Division
The 42-year-old was invited that morning to Kelvin Shuler's home on Odessa Street in downtown Charleston to celebrate a wedding.
The party was a good time at first. People drank beer. They cooked. They joked.
At some point, though, the two friends started bickering and shouting. A witness said Shuler first slapped Singletary. They scuffled and knocked over chairs.
Singletary got the upper hand. Shuler suffered broken ribs and a fractured eye socket. His face bled.
He wanted Singletary to leave, so he grabbed a butcher knife, then a gun and went outside. That's when Singletary emerged on the back porch.
Some witnesses said Singletary had jumped from the porch railing when the gun went off. Some said he was standing on the porch, then fell after the shot rang out.
Witnesses agreed, though, that Singletary was only feet from Shuler when a single bullet hit his chest. He died the next morning, and Shuler was arrested on a murder charge.
Last month, Shuler's attorney asked a judge to grant Shuler, 50, immunity from prosecution and from civil liability under the S.C. Protection of Persons and Property Act.
The law contains the state's version of the "castle doctrine," which allows people to use deadly force on their own property or in their vehicles if they think their lives are threatened. Its "stand-your-ground" provisions state that people also don't have to back down to such a threat anywhere they're allowed to be.
More cases like Shuler's have popped up in Charleston-area courtrooms within the past year. Many pose key questions that will help define the extent of the self-defense law that went into effect in 2006.
But a family member of one man who was shot last year in North Charleston said the law has become a "license to murder."
Since 2010, the law has come into play in at least 13 cases here. Eight of those came last year, according to a Post and Courier tally.
Ninth Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson, whose office has handled many of the recent cases, said publicity of stand-your-ground cases have made attorneys and defendants more aware of the law's protections.
Cases that are appealed to the state's Supreme Court also have helped clarify how the law applies to real situations, she said.
"They're raising it more often than they have in the past," Wilson said. "Using this sort of technical avenue probably has increased based on ... the popularity of it."
The cases include a North Charleston resident who said he feared for his life last year when he shot another man in the face during an argument about parking.
They include a man absolved of a murder charge after gunning down someone in St. George who wasn't the intended target of his gunfire.
The most recent example came a week ago in what authorities called a classic case of self-defense: A Lincolnville resident, 76, shot a man trying to rob him outside his own home.
A judge will decide this month whether Shuler acted lawfully when he killed Singletary nearly four years ago. The main question will be whether he could use deadly force after fighting with a guest at his own home.
Video cameras captured what happened May 18 outside a Murphy USA gas station on Rivers Avenue.
Two drivers, Patrick Deshaine Williams, 29, and Donald Stewart Ashfield, 36, argued near the gas pumps. Williams had pulled his pickup too close to Ashfield's car. Ashfield couldn't get out.
At one point, Williams went back to his car and got a gun. As Ashfield retreated to his car and his wife, Williams shot him in the face. He then sped away.
But the video didn't capture the words that Williams said made him fear for his life.
He told detectives that Ashfield had implied that he was going to get a gun. That's why Williams said he fetched his own pistol and shot Ashfield, who survived the wound in his cheek.
Williams was arrested on a charge of attempted murder.
Williams was a felon. He was convicted for being an accessory to a felony after Summerville police officers reported in 2004 that he was the getaway driver for two men in a "gang fight."
For his most recent arrest, Williams hired Charleston attorney Andy Savage, who said he takes special interest in stand-your-ground cases because he "finds them interesting."
Because Ashfield bent down toward his car, Savage said his client had reason to think that Ashfield was looking for a gun. None was found.
"(Williams) didn't initiate any wrongdoing," Savage said. "The question was whether there was an imminent threat of harm."
In October, Assistant Solicitor Culver Kidd cited the state's castle doctrine when he dropped the case.
That frustrated Ashfield and his mother, Joyce Kephart-Adair, who spent 35 years as a local sheriff's deputy.
Kephart-Adair said that her son exchanged words with Williams, that neither of the men were happy with each other. But she said the video showed Ashfield with his arms stretched out during their quarrel.
When he retreated to his car, Ashfield was seeking safety from a man with a gun, she said.
She urged prosecutors to revive the charge and called the stand-your-ground law "an excuse for them not to do their jobs."
"Somebody's got to draw the line somewhere," Kephart-Adair said. "They need to look at how this law applies a little more closely. Otherwise, it's a license to murder if you say you feel threatened by someone."
Not first time
Violence is no stranger to some people who have used the state's self-defense law.
Felons who have escaped charges because of the law have been jailed on another murder count later on.
Glendell Gladden Jr., who had a history of drug convictions, fatally shot Robert Rocky Williams in 2010 during an argument in West Ashley.
Gladden argued that he had shot Williams in self-defense. Deputies found a 9 mm pistol at Williams' side. The murder charge against Gladden was later dropped.
Now, Gladden, 29, is one of three men jailed on murder charges in the July shooting death of 22-year-old Don'ta Pringle.
Wilson, the solicitor, said prosecutors sometimes find ways to charge a felon who kills in the name of self-defense. But in Gladden's case, investigators had no evidence contradicting his story, she said.
"That gets tricky with self-defense," Wilson said, "and the right to arm yourself for defense."
Some defendants also have been linked to violence in the years leading up to a justifiable homicide.
Regina Cherell Carey, now 27, was arrested in 2010 on charges that she stabbed a man in a North Charleston apartment.
The man told police that he was lying in his bed when Carey paid him a visit. When she leaned over him, the man said he kissed her. That prompted Carey to stab him in the chest, a police report stated.
"You did me wrong," she said, according to the document. "I'll kill you."
Carey later pleaded guilty to first-degree assault and battery. She was sentenced to 225 days in jail and two years on probation.
But when Carey stabbed another man three years later, the case would serve as what attorneys called a textbook example of the state's stand-your-ground law.
One night in June, she was at her Bexley Street home when a roommate, Tony Cleveland, 45, returned drunk and high on crack cocaine.
He started beating Carey. Others pulled Cleveland outside, but he fought his way back in, and Carey stabbed him with a kitchen knife.
Circuit Judge Stephanie McDonald threw out Carey's murder charge in December, and said the law was made for people like her.
'Spirit' of defense
Even when acts of self-defense result in a bystander's death, people can be cleared of criminal responsibility.
In October, a judge granted immunity to Columbia resident Shannon Scott in the 2010 fatal shooting of a 17-year-old who wasn't the intended target of his gunfire, according to published media reports.
Scott had thought that the young man's vehicle was occupied by youths who followed his daughter home from a nightclub. Despite how he targeted the wrong person, his attorney argued, Scott was forced to react to an imminent threat.
In a case with similar circumstances, 28-year-old Brandon Davis was arrested in a fatal shooting in June outside the EZ Stop gas station in St. George.
When Davis' murder charge came up for a preliminary hearing two months later, his attorney argued that the shooting was tragic but not criminal.
Davis had left a nightclub and stopped to use the bathroom, said the lawyer, Carl B. Grant of Orangeburg. Davis then happened upon a man he had been arguing with at the club.
While Davis tried to avoid confrontation, he was "sucker-punched," his attorney said. A crowd of people also attacked a passenger in his vehicle.
That's when Davis grabbed a gun from his car and fired into the air. He pointed it at the crowd and fired again. One bullet struck 27-year-old Edward Holmes in the head, killing him.
Davis left the scene. Police said Holmes was involved in the fight, but Grant described him as an innocent bystander. Davis' primary assailant, who was not wounded in the gunfire, was later arrested on assault charges.
Though Holmes wasn't Davis' intended target, a judge agreed that Davis hadn't acted criminally. His murder charge was dismissed.
"We admitted the act of shooting occurred," Grant said. "But was it a crime? This citizen was simply acting in the spirit of self-defense."
Because many of the cases arise from fights, finding out who started them often plays a role in any self-defense argument.
When 76-year-old Charles Petit fatally shot the man who tried to rob him last week, deputies quickly learned that he wasn't the aggressor. His assailant was 25 years old.
Wilson, the solicitor, said not every case is as straightforward. Prosecutors can drop charges in cases that are, she said, but they rely on judges to help determine ones that are not.
"When household members are attacking each other, it's difficult for officers to see who the aggressor is," Wilson said. "When we move out into parking lots, to nightclubs ... determining whether they acted lawfully is more and more difficult."
In June, when three people were fatally shot outside a Cycle Gear store in North Charleston, police arrested Summerville resident Ronald Reid, 44, in connection with one of the deaths.
Detectives alleged that Reid was part of a group who started beating Maurice Horry's friend because of an alleged show of disrespect between their motorcycle clubs.
Horry ran to his motorcycle, got a pistol and opened fire on the attackers, killing two and hitting Reid in the leg. Reid, who had a concealed-weapons permit, drew his own pistol and fatally shot Horry once in the chest.
Police said Horry was justified in using deadly force, but they charged Reid with murder. Under the law, people who use deadly force in self-defense must be engaged in lawful activity.
Reid has insisted that he hadn't participated in the fight before Horry shot him, and investigators have not publicly presented evidence against his story.
Savage, the defense attorney, will fight for Reid's immunity from prosecution during a hearing March 3.
A similar question arose during the January hearing for Shuler, the Odessa Street resident who shot a guest at his home.
What sparked the dispute between Shuler and Singletary remained a mystery even after witnesses testified during the proceeding.
It might have been an argument over cash. Singletary, a bail bondsman, had a lot of it on hand. He and Shuler, a longshoreman at the Port of Charleston, were said to have been joking about who had more.
A witness testified that Singletary was minding his business and cutting meat when Shuler slapped him.
"At first I thought they were playing," said the witness, Sharnika Morris. "But he just did it again. ... That's when they started fighting."
Trained in martial arts, Singletary quickly turned the tables on Shuler. Investigators later found drops of Shuler's blood throughout the home.
When their fight spilled outside, a neighbor later testified, Shuler yelled, "Get out of my yard!"
Singletary didn't leave, witnesses said, because he couldn't find his keys.
Phillip Jones of North Charleston, who was at the party, said he tried to separate the men as Shuler grabbed a knife, then a gun.
"I saw Singletary jump off the (porch) bannister into the yard," Jones testified. "When he jumped up, he got shot."
The bullet hit near the center of Singletary's chest.
Shuler walked off. When a police officer spotted him on a nearby street, Shuler tossed the pistol into a nearby marsh.
His attorney, Savage, later argued during the immunity hearing that it didn't matter that the gun was stolen; Shuler still had the right to defend himself with it.
Savage pointed to Singletary's blood-alcohol content - 0.251, more than three times the legal driving limit. He also suffered few injuries during the scuffle, Savage noted.
Savage faulted police for not looking further into Shuler's contention of self-defense before they arrested him. But David Osborne, a former homicide detective at the Charleston Police Department, said investigators viewed the fight and the shooting as separate incidents.
"We had a fight, then the defendant disengaged," Osborne said. "Then the defendant engaged again."
Assistant Solicitor Stephanie Linder, who filed paperwork opposing immunity for Shuler, said that when Shuler retreated to get the gun, the threat of injury passed.
"The defendant could have remained inside behind locked doors," Linder said, "but he chose to shoot the victim after the physical altercation had ceased, after any wrongdoing on the victim's part had ceased."
Shuler remains free on bail as he tries to clear his name.
For Singletary's loved ones, the pain of his death lingers with Shuler's fight.
After spending most of his life as a bachelor, Singletary got married eight months before his death.
Ramon Roane, 51, of North Charleston, a friend of Singletary, said his widow and other relatives are hopeful that Circuit Judge Thomas Hughston will deny the immunity request and push Shuler toward trial.
"He cannot argue stand your ground or castle doctrine," Roane said. "(Singletary) was an invited guest. He didn't start a fight.
"He was there to have fun."
Reach Andrew Knapp at 937-5414 or twitter.com/offlede.
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