SC Supreme Court stops murder trial, orders hearing on ‘Stand Your Ground’ defense

jmonk@thestate.comJuly 10, 2013 

FILE PHOTO: South Carolina Supreme Court Chief Justice Jean Toal


— An armed intruder is making a “Stand Your Ground” argument in a murder trial, saying he shouldn’t be prosecuted for shooting and killing the man whose home he broke into because it looked as though the man was about to shoot him first.

The state’s 2006 “Stand Your Ground” law effectively allows people to claim “immunity from prosecution” when they have used deadly force to deal with and even kill people in various situations if they believed they were being threatened by them.

On Monday, before a jury had been seated in the trial of murder defendant Gregg Isaac, Columbia defense attorney Mark Schnee told Judge Clifton Newman that Isaac wanted immunity from prosecution in his 2005 shooting and killing of Antonio Corbitt.

Schnee went on to tell Newman that he wanted a hearing on the matter and asked Newman to grant Isaac that immunity. To help his case, Schnee put Isaac on the stand, and Isaac admitted shooting Corbitt at Corbitt’s own apartment on Fernandina Road in April 2005.

At the time, Isaac also said, he and another man, Tavares World, entered Corbitt’s apartment after World kicked the door in. World and Isaac each had pistols. World and Corbitt began fighting.

As World and Corbitt fought, at one point, Isaac testified Monday, it looked like Corbitt was going to pull a gun from his pants and shoot Isaac, so he – Isaac – shot Corbitt twice. Corbitt stumbled outside and died on a front walk. Isaac told Newman he feared for his life, both from Corbitt and from World, whom Isaac said had threatened to kill him unless he went along with World.

Isaac’s attorney, Schnee, argued briefly to Newman that Isaac should be granted immunity from prosecution under South Carolina’s “Stand your Ground” law, which allows people to use deadly force if they fear for their lives. Isaac testified he was in fear for his life.

The idea that an armed, self-confessed home invader should claim immunity from prosecution appeared to amuse Judge Newman.

“It borders on the preposterous for the defendant in this case to claim he was acting lawfully and had the right to kill Mr. Corbitt,” Newman told Schnee in open court.

Newman turned down a request by Schnee to hold a full hearing on the matter.

After the trial began, Schnee had an emergency petition filed with the S.C. Supreme Court, requesting a stay in the trial because Newman turned down the request.

In an unusual move, the Supreme Court granted that stay on Tuesday, on the trial’s second day, causing Newman to halt the trial and dissolve the jury panel.

The Supreme Court – which rarely stops an ongoing trial – said in its order that it wants to hear arguments concerning the state’s 2006 “Stand Your Ground” law, which effectively allows people to claim immunity from prosecution when they have used deadly force to deal with and even kill people who they believe have threatened them in various situations.

The arguments the high court wants to hear apparently don’t involve the substance of the law – they involve at what point in a trial process a judge should hold a full hearing about whether evidence can be introduced about whether the defendant can assert that he enjoys immunity from prosecution because he was in fear for his life when he used deadly force. If a judge were to grant immunity, then a trial would not have to be held.

“The circuit court is without jurisdiction to proceed,” the high court said in its ruling halting the trial. It was signed by Chief Justice Jean Toal.

So Isaac will get to make his “Stand Your Ground” argument again, before the state’s highest court.

Without commenting on the merits of the case, 5th Circuit Solicitor Dan Johnson – whose high-profile violent crime prosecutor Luck Campbell was prosecuting the case – said in an interview, “I’m glad it’s an issue that the court is taking a look at.”

The issue of when and if a full pretrial hearing should be held on the “Stand Your Ground” law is an important one, Johnson said. “As you know, court time is at a premium. In essence, you’ll have to have a mini-trial before you go ahead with the full trial. It makes it more difficult to have a trial in a speedy fashion when you have to have mini-trials in factual scenarios that might be absurd, in my opinion.”

The long-unsolved Corbitt killing has attracted much publicity.

Last year, Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott held a press conference to announce that his fingerprint experts had re-examined a fingerprint at Corbitt’s apartment and linked it to one of the home invaders. The fingerprint, found on a lamp, came from Isaac.

In the spring of 2012, Lott’s detectives picked up Isaac, and he confessed to the shooting and named World and another man, Vernorris Dixon, as being involved. Isaac, World and Dixon all face charges of murder, attempted armed robbery, first-degree burglary and attempted armed robbery.

It isn’t known when Isaac’s trial will begin again. Apparently, the Supreme Court will want to hear full arguments from all sides. It also will need a court transcript of Monday’s open court discussion between Schnee and Newman.

Reach Monk at (803) 771-8344.

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