‘Stand your ground’ applies in stabbing

Edwards

Grabbing a knife and going outside probably wasn’t the best choice for A’Kara Edwards last summer as she tried to stop her boyfriend from pounding on her car with a hammer, but her decision was a legal one under the state’s “stand your ground” law, a Charleston judge has ruled.

Edwards confronted Alex Whipple with the butcher knife outside her North Charleston home and tried to persuade him to leave but instead stabbed the 22-year-old when he went after her.

After Edwards, now 20, was arrested on a murder charge, her attorneys filed for immunity from prosecution under the S.C. Protection of Persons and Property Act. Circuit Judge Kristi Harrington, who heard testimony last month, granted the motion Friday. Opposing attorneys learned of the ruling Tuesday.

Prosecutors have resisted the law’s use in instances of domestic violence — particularly in stabbings in which women kill alleged abusers — and have appealed another North Charleston case that could wind up at the S.C. Supreme Court. Assistant Solicitor Culver Kidd said Tuesday, though, that he did not plan to challenge the ruling on Edwards.

He said the case was a “close” one that came down to a difficult decision for the judge. Prosecutors will continue to follow the same approach to similar cases, he said.

Whipple’s mother, Micki Zalatimo of West Ashley, faulted a law that she said favors defendants who might have been able to avoid a deadly confrontation. But Zalatimo expected Harrington’s ruling because of its broad protections, she said.

“She had to rule on the side of what the law says,” Zalatimo said Tuesday. “There was no way around that. The issue really is the law.”

Edwards’ lead attorney, Kevin Holmes of Charleston, said courts have repeatedly rejected arguments that self-proclaimed domestic violence victims have unfairly used the 2006 law as a “license to kill.”

Though he said his client’s arrest was based on faulty information, Holmes said he didn’t blame the authorities for pursuing the case.

“You can understand why they had to charge her; someone was killed,” he said. “But we’re really fortunate that we have this new law that we can gather evidence and present it to the court before facing a murder trial.”

Kidd had argued during a Jan. 27 pretrial hearing that Edwards brought on her own predicament by leaving her home.

Edwards had noticed Whipple damaging her car, so she grabbed the knife and walked outside to scare him away, she testified. She later told detectives that she stabbed him only when he lurched toward her and fell on her knife. The blade punctured his heart.

But while the law should be used defensively, Kidd said, Edwards used it offensively to confront Whipple. Her actions didn’t amount to a “stand your ground” situation, he said.

“Every case is different, and we will continue to fight for cases we believe merit prosecution,” Kidd said. “Sometimes, justice comes by way of immunity from a judge.”

Edwards’ case differs from the other in which Kidd has appealed a judge’s decision to grant immunity.

Whitlee Jones was arrested on a murder charge after she stabbed her boyfriend, Eric Lee, when he confronted her as she tried to leave their North Charleston home in November 2012.

Earlier that evening, Lee had dragged Jones down their street by her hair, but opposing sides in that case have disputed whether he posed a threat during the separate encounter that later led to his death.

Kidd has argued that the law has been used by women who escalated ordinary domestic disputes into deadly ones, but a crucial part of his challenge to Jones’ argument was that she lived with Lee. Under the law, an outside attacker is presumed to pose a danger, but a roommate might not be such a clear threat.

On Aug. 4, Whipple had been staying at Edwards’ Kent Avenue home for several days, but he didn’t live there.

He started drinking liquor when he got up that morning, Edwards testified. Later, they argued. She refused to hand him her car keys, she said, and instead locked him outside and told him to go away.

Edwards threatened to call the police after he took a hammer and bashed her Ford Five Hundred. He still didn’t leave.

Harrington, the judge who listened to Edwards’ account, noted in her order that Edwards had “tried several times” to get Whipple to leave. But because Whipple stayed, Edwards had “reasonable belief that she was in imminent danger,” Harrington wrote.

Under the law, Edwards could not bring on the “difficulty” that prompted her use of deadly force. While grabbing a knife “may not have been the best course of action,” her poor judgment didn’t take away her right to act in self-defense, Harrington wrote.

“When ... Edwards took the kitchen knife,” the judge wrote, “she had a right to defend her home and demand that (he) leave.”

Though Holmes said Edwards, who has been on house arrest since posting bail Aug. 20, was pleased with the ruling, he said his client regretted how the situation worked out. In hindsight, Edwards testified, she would have called for help instead of fetching the knife that day.

“She has a lot of remorse over what happened,” Holmes said. “It’s something she has to live with.”

But Whipple’s mother said Edwards’ push for immunity mischaracterized her son as a villain. She said his alleged behavior was out of character and that he had been raised to never hurt a woman.

Edwards testified that Whipple had “poked” her before but had never raised a fist against her until that day.

Though Whipple’s blood-alcohol content was .138 percent when he died, Zalatimo said the number doesn’t indicate how he normally acted after drinking. The portrayal of her son as a “drunken, out-of-control maniac” hurt, she said.

“I miss his humor,” she said. “I miss his tiny ways of checking on me and showing how he cares. I just miss him.”

Reach Andrew Knapp at 937-5414 or twitter.com/offlede.