Whitlee Jones screamed for help as her boyfriend pulled her down the street by her hair. Her weave fell from her head and onto the pavement.
About the law
The S.C. Protection of Persons and Property Act recognizes that a person's home, vehicle and business is his castle. This codified "castle doctrine" authorizes deadly force under certain circumstances and explains some situations in which a person can be expected to use it.
The law states that "a person is presumed to have a reasonable fear of ... death" and can use force if an unlawful intruder is forcefully trying to enter a home or if the person has reason to believe that a forceful act is occurring or has occurred. But this presumption of fear does not apply if the person "against whom the deadly force is used has the right to be in or is a lawful resident of the dwelling."
It also states that "a person who is not engaged in an unlawful activity and who is attacked in another place where he has a right to be, including, but not limited to, his place of business, has no duty to retreat and has the right to stand his ground and meet force with force ... if he reasonably believes it is necessary to prevent" serious injury or a violent crime.
A person who lawfully uses deadly force is immune from criminal prosecution and civil lawsuits.
A neighbor heard Jones' cries and dialed 911 on that night in November 2012.
But the scuffle ended before a North Charleston policeman arrived and asked Jones' boyfriend what happened. Eric Lee, 29, said their argument over a cellphone had never turned physical. The officer left.
A short time later, Jones went back to the home where she lived with Lee. She planned to pack up and leave for good.
But after Jones gathered her things, Lee stepped in front of her. Though authorities later contended that Lee didn't attack her, Jones said he shook her and blocked her way out, so she pulled a knife and stabbed him once. Lee died, and Jones was arrested for murder.
Nearly two years later, a judge found earlier this month that Jones, now 25, had a right to kill Lee under the S.C. Protection of Persons and Property Act, which allows people in certain situations to use force when faced with serious injury. But to the 9th Circuit Solicitor's Office, Jones is not the kind of person legislators had in mind when they passed the "stand your ground" law in 2006. It does not apply to housemates in episodes of domestic violence, the prosecutors argued.
Jones was the first of three North Charleston women to be charged with murder during the past two years after stabbing a boyfriend or a roommate she said attacked her.
With plans to appeal in the case, Solicitor Scarlett Wilson and Assistant Solicitor Culver Kidd called on lawmakers and courts to clarify whether such residents should be afforded a chance to get immunity from prosecution before they're put on trial. In many situations, Kidd said in a court filing, the law had become "the criminal contingent's best defense" and "a potential license to kill."
"(The Legislature's) intent ... was to provide law-abiding citizens greater protections from external threats in the form of intruders and attackers," Kidd, the case's lead prosecutor, told The Post and Courier. "We believe that applying the statute so that its reach into our homes and personal relationships is inconsistent with (its) wording and intent."
A similar fight has unfolded in recent years in Florida, whose law served as a model for South Carolina's.
But 9th Circuit Public Defender Ashley Pennington, whose office represents two of the North Charleston women, said a view of the law as a "license to kill" is an overstatement.
Courts had relied on judicial rulings to figure out when force is justified, he said, until the new law made it easier for judges, juries and victims to decide.
"Confusion about the law has been an enabling factor, historically, that might have allowed more domestic violence," Pennington said. "People were afraid to defend themselves. This law allows people who are being attacked to defend themselves."
Rep. Murrell Smith, R-Sumter, said lawmakers had not contemplated the application in domestic situations when he introduced the bill in 2005. It's ultimately up to judges, though, to figure out what the law means, he said.
"But in the end," Smith said, "our purpose was that if you're presented with a perilous situation, you've got the right to use force."
'Get off of me'
Jones and Lee had been together for six years, and the North Charleston Police Department never fielded reports about violence between them, Kidd said.
Jones had never been arrested. Her boyfriend had convictions for misdemeanor property crimes and marijuana possession.
Before he started dating Jones, Lee was arrested in 2006 after a woman said he smashed her flower pot and shattered her bedroom window with a rock during a fit of rage.
On Nov. 1, 2012, he was upset about a cellphone.
Lee had given the phone to Jones as a gift, but he wanted it back that night, according to court documents that described what happened next. He punched Jones when she tried to leave with it, she said. She managed to get out through a back door.
When Lee tried to get Jones back inside around 11:30 p.m., one of their neighbors on Warsaw Road saw the commotion through a window and dialed 911.
"(He's) pulling the lady by her hair," the woman said in the call. "Can y'all please get somebody out here real quick?"
Jones sought help, too.
She shouted, but Lee persuaded someone who approached him to walk away. She called a friend, but she got only a voicemail message. She dialed 911, but she never had a chance to talk with the dispatcher who answered.
"Get off of me, Eric," the dispatcher heard her saying as she cried. "Get off of me."
The two struggled for the phone and mashed the numbers on its keypad.
"Hello, hello, hello?" the dispatcher said.
But the line went dead.
'Begged' for help
Jones gave up the phone, she said, hoping it would stop Lee's advances, and it did.
He went back to the house, and Jones ran down the street before a North Charleston police officer drove up.
Lee told the lawman that Jones had smashed his phone, an incident report stated. No assault had taken place, he said.
The policeman told Lee to call if she came back or caused another disturbance. The officer found Jones' hairweave in the road and photographed it. He couldn't find her, so he resumed his patrol.
Meanwhile, Jones found herself alone in the dark without a way to contact anyone.
"When she ... begged neighbors for help, no one came to her aid," her attorney later wrote in court motions. "Going back to the residence was the only way for her to reach out to someone. ... Her intention ... was to leave Mr. Lee for good."
A half-hour later, two friends who had heard the voicemail Jones left for them drove her back.
But Lee grew agitated again and pushed her around as she collected her belongings, she said. In an upstairs bedroom where she fetched her shoes, she came across a knife and tucked it into her bra.
She was on her way out when Lee stepped in front of her.
Jones' varying accounts about what happened next would lead authorities to charge her with murder and would serve as part of the appeal when she was granted immunity.
She said Lee shook her, and "as he was getting ready to hit her again," Jones retrieved the knife from her bra and stabbed him, according to court documents. The knife punctured his heart.
But Jones didn't mention during her first police interview that Lee had attacked her. He was just "trying to stop me from leaving" and "standing in front of me," she said, according to the lead prosecutor's court filings. Adding further suspicion, Kidd said that Jones was laughing with her friends as she ran from the home.
She soon ran back as one of her friends dialed 911 at 12:12 a.m. Nov. 2, 2012. The women cried as one told a dispatcher that Jones was taking Lee to a hospital in a frantic attempt to save his life.
The dispatcher asked who had stabbed Lee.
"I don't know," the friend said. "I didn't see anything."
That friend later testified in Jones' immunity hearing that she never saw Lee touch Jones. The witness was walking toward her car when Jones went back inside, a police report stated.
But Jones' attorney, Assistant Public Defender Mary Ford, said both friends were outside and shouldn't be expected to recall the final confrontation.
"(Jones) was not in a position to get away without acting," Ford wrote in a filing.
'Overstepping its bounds'
To Kidd and Wilson, though, such questions of fact in domestic violence incidents should be considered by a jury.
After hearing testimony in August, Circuit Judge J.C. Nicholson ruled in Jones' favor Oct. 3, giving her immunity under the stand-your-ground law. He brushed off prosecutors' arguments that the law didn't apply to the case and that it's unconstitutional.
Judges statewide started holding the pretrial immunity hearing in such cases after the S.C. Supreme Court ruled in 2011 that it was the only way to make sure qualified defendants are not prosecuted.
But in court filings, Kidd turned to U.S. Supreme Court opinions that described how citizens, like defendants, have a right to a jury trial. Denying one is a violation of the 14th Amendment's "due process right of our community" and "indicative of our legislature overstepping its bounds and authority," Kidd wrote.
Nicholson, though, said judges must often decide questions of law by weighing evidence before a case ever reaches a jury.
"Society is not served by allowing the state unrestricted decision-making authority," his order said.
The crux of Kidd's appeal, though, is rooted in the wording of the statute itself.
It says that people should be expected to fear for their lives if someone is breaking into their home, their car or their business. Most people in those situations can defend themselves. But if people share their home with the target of their force, they don't have that "presumption" of fear, the law says.
The law also extends the self-defense right to "another place" a person is allowed to be if it's necessary to prevent injury or a violent crime.
To Kidd, "another place" means somewhere besides the home. He argued that the provision does not apply to the home when an attacker is a legal resident.
But Nicholson found that Kidd's argument would "create a nonsensical result" in which people can defend themselves from a lover's attack outside their home, but not inside.
'Exaggerate their fear'
While the prosecutors prepare their appeal, Jones' murder charge will stand. She has been free since posting bail 40 days after her arrest.
Since then, one of two more North Charleston women charged with murder in similar situations already has been exonerated.
A judge called a murder charge for Regina Carey, who stabbed the roommate attacking her in June 2013, "appalling" while dismissing the case in December. The latest woman, A'Kara Travil Edwards, is on house arrest while she awaits her day in court.
Edwards, 19, stabbed her boyfriend, 22-year-old Alex Stevven Whipple, in August. Whipple was smashing her car with a hammer when she went outside with a knife and told him to stop, she told the police. Whipple dropped the hammer but came after her with balled fists, Edwards said.
Her attorney, Kevin Holmes of Charleston, said Edwards had grown frustrated. He plans to request an immunity hearing once he gets more evidence from Kidd, who has prosecuted all three of the North Charleston cases.
But to Whipple's mother, Micki Zalatimo of West Ashley, the thought of Edwards getting immunity is unsettling.
"To me, this law is stupid," Zalatimo said. "She didn't have to go outside, but she did. ... That's not standing your ground."
Wilson, the area's chief prosecutor, said the law should be fleshed out with "explicit language" if the General Assembly thought it should apply to a confrontation between people living under the same roof.
With a similar law, Florida has seen the same struggles.
A Jacksonville prosecutor was criticized for pursing charges against Marissa Alexander, a mother who fired warning shots near her allegedly abusive husband and her two children. Alexander was convicted and sentenced to 20 years in prison, but she was granted a new trial after an appeal. Her ordeal partially inspired legislators to legalize warning shots in some situations.
The prosecutor in that case, though, said Alexander's actions were prompted more by anger than by a fear for her own life.
In South Carolina, Kidd said such disputed factual scenarios should be left for a jury to decide.
"Our concern is that the statute makes it very easy for people to shoot or stab first," he said, "and to then exaggerate their fear or the real danger."
Reach Andrew Knapp at 937-5414 or twitter.com/offlede.