No “Stand Your Ground” For Domestic Abuse Victims? Law vs. Ethics Strikes Again!

Domestic violenceA hoary statutory destruction debate that hails from the Fifties centered on the simple prohibition, “No Vehicles in the Park.” The question is whether the reasonable and proper interpretation of such a prohibition should rest on the clear meaning of the words alone, or whether the underlying purpose and reasoning behind the rule or law must be taken into account. A tank is a vehicle: does the rule mean that a WW I tank can’t be placed in the park as a memorial? Is a baby stroller a vehicle (the dictionary says yes)? If we accept the literal approach—the school of jurisprudence championed by scholar L.A. Hart that is called legal positivism—we take legal interpretation out the realm of ethics and morality, and give judges only the power to apply laws as written, results be damned. The other approach, more popular with non-lawyers and many judges but not necessarily correct, is identified with Hart’s contemporary Lon Fuller, and called the natural law approach.

This conflict has arisen in intriguing fashion in a South Carolina dispute over the application of that state’s Stand Your Ground law in domestic abuse cases. In 2012, an abusive boyfriend, Eric Lee, dragged Whitlee Jones down a street by her hair. She got away, and Lee returned to the apartment they shared. A 911 call prompted by the hair-dragging spectacle brought a policeman to visit, and Lee put him at ease, saying that all was well.

It wasn’t. Jones, having retrieved her hair weave that didn’t survive the drag through downtown Charleston, returned to the apartment to pack her belongings and move out. As Jones began to leave the apartment, Lee blocked her way, and according to Jones, began to shake her. She pulled out a knife and stabbed him once, and once was enough. Lee died. Jones was arrested for murder.

A judge ruled earlier this month that Jones had a right to kill Lee under the Protection of Persons and Property Act, which says that there is no duty to retreat from deadly threats and allows those threatened in certain situations to use force to defend life and limb, even deadly force. The 9th Circuit Solicitor’s Office, however, argued that Jones and those like her were not who legislators intended to protect when they passed the “stand your ground” law in 2006. “(The legislature’s) intent … was to provide law-abiding citizens greater protections from external threats in the form of intruders and attackers,” prosecutor Culver Kidd told the news media. “We believe that applying the statute so that it reaches into our homes and personal relationships is inconsistent with (its) wording and intent.”

Circuit Judge J.C. Nicholson rejected this argument, and granted Jones Stand Your Ground immunity, exempting her from trial on the murder charge. In response to Kidd’s argument that individuals could not invoke Stand Your Ground to defend against violence in their own homes, Nicholson said that construction would create the “nonsensical result” that a victim of domestic abuse could defend against an attacker outside of the home, but not inside the home, where some pretty violent attacks occur.

Just ask the NFL.

Kidd isn’t backing down. Similar cases are coming before his office (in one of them, the judge dismissed a murder charge against a women who stabbed a roommate attacking her, and called the charge “appalling”). He is appealing the case, arguing that Jones and other potential domestic abuse victims  can’t invoke the Stand Your Ground law if  they are in homes they share with their attackers.

In fine “No Vehicles in the Park!” fashion, there is a positivist argument that favors Kidd. South Carolina  has two self-defense provisions:  the Castle Doctrine, authorizing occupants of a home to use deadly force against intruders, and Stand Your Ground, allowing deadly force to defend against threatened  bodily harm in another place where a citizen “has a right to be.” Neither literally covers the Jones-Lee confrontation.

From an ethics viewpoint, it is clear what the “right” result is, and Judge Nicholson identified it. But if judges keep pretending that laws say what they really don’t, where does it end? It appears that the legislature left a yawning hole between its self-defense statutes that Whitlee Jones fell right into. Do laws mean what they say, or what “everybody knows” they were intended to say? Ethical rules and principles have to be regarded as flexible, because situations always arise where applying them bring unethical results. Laws, however, have to be consistently interpreted for citizens to know what is legal and what isn’t. Kidd’s argument is that, like it or not, no current legislation gave Whitlee Jones the right to kill her room mate in a home they shared. His message to the legislature is “Fix it. Don’t expect judges and prosecutors to ignore it.”

He’s not wrong.

Let’s skateboard through the park!


Pointer: Think Progress

Facts: Post and Courier

15 thoughts on “No “Stand Your Ground” For Domestic Abuse Victims? Law vs. Ethics Strikes Again!

  1. I thought that under a common law system we didn’t need to write specific laws for every scenario and judges had a lot more discretion than in countries practicing Roman/civil law. I find it endlessly confusing when watching episodes of Law and Order in which the prosecution can’t take someone to trial for some heinous act because there isn’t a law explicitly addressing it or ‘the law hasn’t caught up with technology.’

    So this ‘stand your ground’ law isn’t a defense used in court it actually gives you immunity from being prosecuted at all? It was discussed so much during and after the George Zimmerman trial I assumed it had some relevance to the case.. but he wasn’t granted immunity.

  2. The wording of the statute: Sec 16-11-440 certainly creates the confusion that keeps the judge from throwing out the case before a trial. But she can of course still not be found guilty via self-defense in trial…

    It just seems the issue is that the accusation can’t be dismissed before a trial. And quite frankly, I don’t see an issue there…

    This is she (still alive) says vs he (dead) would be assumed to say. We don’t know she stabbed him in self-defense. Are there witnesses that saw the final confrontation go down as she said it did?

    • Yeah… I don’t think that we know enough details to start to question her story of the final confrontation. It hit me as odd while I was reading the story that the knife was strangely convenient, seeing as Lee was apparently blocking the exit, and I don’t know about you, but I don’t keep a knife block in my entryway. But there could be a very good explanation for that, we just don’t know it.

      That said, the question here is in regard to letter vs spirit of the law, not whether it should apply to the facts of the case. I get what Jack is saying, but there’s a little part of me that isn’t bothered by this, that this kind of interpretation is exactly what judges are for. That it’s a criminal justice system and not a criminal punishment system, and that a little wiggle room might be for the best, because legislators don’t always see in advance the direct causes of their actions. The obvious caveat is that there have to be limits on wiggle room, it’s one thing to interpret SYG so as to apply to domestic violence, it’s another to throw entire sections of law out the window and pretend they don’t exist.

  3. Is there possibly any connection between the sometimes protection from criminal culpability in “in-house” SYG law, and the sometimes beneficial (to “perpetrators”) application of justice in the realm of the so-called crimes of passion? Is there some other interpretation of law besides SYG that could possibly benefit Whitlee Jones despite the obvious criminal appearance of her actions?

  4. I’m confused – if he blocked the exit and physically assaulted her, how is that not a simple case of self-defense?

    • It probably is a simple case of self-defense…but not one in which the law allows the judge to throw out the case before trial based on Stand Your Ground OR the Castle Doctrine.

      In which case, the law would expect a trial because maybe the facts don’t support her story and what she said ISN’T what actually happened. In which case, a trial IS necessary.

      The issue here is that the laws don’t allow the judge to throw out the case before trial based on one of those two doctrines, and as I was alluding to in my other comment, I don’t actually see this as a flaw in the laws. She MAY NOT have been defending herself. She may HAVE committed murder.

      • Or the prosecutor could just drop the charges… oh wait, he’s the one pushing for them, likely because he does not like the law (or maybe there is something else going on here, but given the recent performances of prosecutors in the U.S. I’m not giving any of them the benefit of the doubt.)

  5. I haven’t studied the individual laws to see what the correct interpretation should be but I understand why applying a “Stand your ground” interpretation to domestic abuse would be disastrous. Perhaps I could use an example to illustrate why you WOULDN’T want a “Stand your ground” or “Castle-Doctrine”-type law to apply to domestic abuse.

    A man kicks in the door of a house at 3 AM. The owner confronts the man and tells him to leave. When the man doesn’t leave, the homeowner shoots him. The police verify that the shooter is the owner of the house, that there was a forced entry and that the gunshot victim was unknown to the homeowner. End of story. There is no further investigation, no evidence collection, no questioning of any witnesses. The dead man’s relatives can’t bring up that the homeowner has a violent temper, that he drinks, that their relative was a kind, caring man who wouldn’t harm a fly and who volunteers all his spare time raising money for children with cancer.

    A man calls police to say that he just shot his wife because she attacked him with a knife. The police come out, find the dead wife with a knife in her hand. The knife has blood on it and the husband has a small cut on his arm. They write this down. End of story. There is no further investigation, no evidence collection, no questioning of any witnesses. The dead woman’s relatives can’t bring up that the husband has a violent temper, that he drinks, that he has beaten her in the past, and that she recently threatened to leave him and take the kids.

    Do you see a difference in the two? Would you really feel comfortable with this? Do you see why domestic abuse has a greater potential for abuse than your typical “Castle-Doctrine” case and needs a more thorough investigation. If they really wrote a law that allows the second situation, it needs to be changed fast.

  6. This sounds to me like she did indeed commit murder…or at least some flavor of involuntary manslaughter. He was guilty of assault (shaking her) and false imprisonment (blocking her egress), but did not present a mortal threat in that moment, so self-defense is a stretch. Her defense would have to be able to convince a jury–perhaps rightly so–that his past actions made his behavior in that moment rise to the level of mortal danger.

    That said, a jury nullification result would bring a smile to my face.

    But on topic, it’s an interesting variation to consider that if SYG should apply, then shouldn’t it apply to both of them? That would DEFINITELY make the domestic violence situations more complicated. That would seem to be a Natural Law argument against SYG applying in the home, supporting the Positivist argument.


    • I don’t know the law in that state, and am not positioned to learn it. But when I was handling appeals in Massachusetts, I dealt with the common law’s assertion, accepted in Mass., that a victim who had been recently placed in reasonable fear of life or limb didn’t have to wait for a second attack to reach the critical stage where deadly force was justifiable. The guy dragged her screaming, by her hair, down the street. Now she was being assaulted by him again. I think an argument could prevail that she had a right to use deadly force because of what he had just done to her, and was under a reasonable belief that her physical being was in imminent peril Or should she wait for him to grab her hair again?

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