'Stand your ground' key in murder charge test

Micki Zalatimo, who spoke during an August bond hearing for the woman who claims self-defense in her son's fatal stabbing, has argued that A'Kara Edwards' use of force against 22-year-old Alex Whipple wasn't necessary. (FILE/ANDREW KNAPP/STAFF)

Alex Whipple’s mother doesn’t want his life reduced to the value of a 2006 Ford.

He and his girlfriend, A’Kara Edwards, were bickering Aug. 4 at Edwards’ North Charleston home. He had been drinking that morning.

Edwards managed to lock him outside, but when Whipple started bashing her Ford Five Hundred with a hammer, she fetched a knife. She walked out and told him to go.

Whipple, 22, threw down the hammer. But, according to Edwards, he then lunged at her, and she stabbed him in the heart.

Whipple had never hit her, so when detectives later questioned Edwards, they asked why she hadn’t armed herself until she saw him damaging her car.

“Does that make this look premeditated?” she asked. “Am I going to jail?”

The answer came two days later when Edwards was arrested on a murder charge, but her attorney will ask a judge Jan. 27 to dismiss it under the S.C. Protection of Persons and Property Act, the state’s “stand your ground” law that allows deadly force in certain situations. The lawyer argues that Edwards did nothing wrong to bring about the confrontation, a key question to be addressed in the trial-like hearing.

The outcome could have larger implications because the case is the latest of at least two North Charleston domestic violence homicides in which prosecutors contend that the law wasn’t intended to protect women defending themselves against alleged would-be abusers at their homes. Seeking clarification of the law, they have appealed a ruling that went against them last year.

Though Edwards, now 20, cited no history of violence between herself and her boyfriend, she told police about his urges to physically lash out.

But to Micki Zalatimo of West Ashley, Whipple’s mother, the law should not give people broad leeway to act with fatal consequences because they’re upset about damaged property.

“If you are in a fight for your life, it is understandable,” Zalatimo said. “She went outside to attack Alex. ... This was about a car, which could’ve been replaced.”

Neither Edwards’ attorney, Kevin Holmes of Charleston, nor the assistant solicitor prosecuting her, Culver Kidd, would discuss their views on the case until the hearing in front of 9th Circuit Judge Kristi Harrington.

Though he has yet to file a response to the immunity motion, Kidd and his boss, Solicitor Scarlett Wilson, have taken a stand on the issue in the past.

They also have taken heat nationwide for their position that the law wasn’t intended to apply to domestic relationships, especially when the confrontation unfolds at home. Some of their critics think such laws have empowered women to defend themselves instead of withstanding harm when faced with a threat.

But the law, Wilson has said, might make it easier for people to shoot or stab first and exaggerate their fears later in the courtroom. She has backed Kidd’s appeal in the case of Whitlee Jones, a North Charleston woman charged with murder in the stabbing of Eric Lee.

The police first went to the couple’s home in November 2012 after a 911 caller said Lee was dragging Jones along their street by her hair. An officer never found Jones, though, and left.

Jones later stabbed Lee when she said he stood in her way and started to attack her as she tried to leave the home for good.

Prosecutors challenged whether Jones was in real danger, but a judge ruled in October that Jones’ reaction was reasonable. The charge remains pending, though, as prosecutors appeal. It was unknown when their argument would be heard.

Wilson has said that the pretrial hearing like the one coming up on Edwards’ charge is an opportunity to ferret out the details of cases that have only one survivor.

“This is often the one and only time a defendant can be confronted and challenged with facts that aren’t completely fleshed out at the time” of arrest, she said.

Edwards lived with her grandparents, her mother and stepfather and her siblings in a small house on Kent Avenue.

She and Whipple had been dating for six months or so. Edwards worked five days a week and attended Trident Technical College.

Whipple had three past arrests but no convictions on assault and drug charges. Edwards had never been to jail.

Their relationship had been tense at times. During an argument July 4, Whipple poked her “really, really hard,” Edwards later told the police.

“But he’s never raised his hand at me,” she said, according to a transcript of her interview with detectives.

He sometimes stayed with her at the home in the Dorchester Terrace neighborhood, but Edwards’ stepfather, John Moultrie, didn’t like him there.

“You know, he’s disrespectful ... by smoking weed,” Moultrie told the authorities. “I haven’t seen ... him get violent-violent, but I seen him getting an attitude like he wanted to get violent.”

But Moultrie also recalled once when his stepdaughter got into a fight at school.

Whipple had stayed at Edwards’ place through the weekend before his death.

On that first Monday in August, he woke up early with Edwards, who had the day off from her job at a call center. She took her grandfather to a doctor’s appointment.

Whipple drank liquor when they got back, Edwards said. He argued with her and asked why she had the day off. She got irritated.

“You need to go,” she recalled telling him, according to court filings. “Call somebody to come and get you.”

Edwards refused to hand over her car keys. She instead threw his clothes on the front porch, and when he walked out to get them, Edwards locked the door.

As Whipple banged on a window and pleaded for her to let him back inside, Edwards said she retreated into the home and showered.

Her sister, the only other person there, soon yelled to her that Whipple was hitting her car with a hammer.

“Why you doing that?” she said after cracking open the front door. “You need to leave before I call the police.”

He didn’t stop. After she got dressed, she went back outside with a butcher knife and again told him to go away. He dropped the hammer, but he stayed.

Whipple came at her and took a swing, she said, but missed. When he did it again, he leaned toward her, she said, and “fell into the knife” that was in her hand.

“I just wanted him to leave,” Edwards later told detectives. “I didn’t want to call the police and then he end up going to jail.”

Edwards called the stabbing an accident. The knife plunged into Whipple’s heart, and he died in the front yard as she dialed 911.

When they questioned her that day, detectives from the North Charleston Police Department told Edwards that it wasn’t their goal to put her behind bars. But they didn’t want her to hold back any details.

“You want to be able to walk away from this,” one detective told her, “and walk away from it for good.”

She gave her story, and the police let her go. But the investigators said they could change their minds and charge her later.

That happened when they got the initial results of an autopsy.

A police spokesman refused to discuss that information. But in his immunity motion, Edwards’ attorney indicated that the police initially found no signs that Whipple had been drinking before his death, which contradicted the suspect’s story.

The toxicology results from Whipple’s autopsy came back 20 days later, though, and pinned his blood-alcohol level at 0.138 percent, more than one and a half times the legal driving limit. It also showed that he had been smoking marijuana.

Holmes’ 114-page motion labeled him a potentially abusive boyfriend who became a trespasser on Edwards’ property that day.

Whipple committed a felony, Holmes said, by doing damage to Edwards’ Ford that cost more than $3,000 to repair. He also had tried to get back inside the home, Holmes noted.

In the filing, the attorney referred to The Post and Courier’s “Till Death Do Us Part” series on domestic violence and the perils women face in South Carolina homes.

“There was nothing unlawful about her arming herself,” Holmes wrote. “The defendant was in actual danger.”

Whipple’s mother looked at the facts differently.

Zalatimo has seen no evidence that her son took his anger out on anything but an 8-year-old Ford. She has seen no signs that he tried to break into Edwards’ home.

She has talked with lawmakers about changing the stand-your-ground law because she thinks it’s too broad. Legislative measures to repeal it, though, never gained steam last year.

The only bill on the law filed for the upcoming General Assembly session would give defendants a chance to immediately appeal a judge’s unfavorable ruling in a pretrial hearing.

Sen. Kevin Bryant, R-Anderson, the proposal’s sponsor, said defendants now don’t have the option to appeal until after a trial. The bill would still allow someone convicted and sentenced at trial to appeal a judge’s immunity ruling, Bryant said.

No matter what form the law takes, Zalatimo said, Edwards must live with what she acknowledged during a bond hearing to be a mistake — an unintended consequence of her grabbing a knife that day last summer.

“Divine retribution will be deliberate, harsh and never-ending,” Zalatimo said. “She will be shackled, one way or another.”

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