COLUMBIA, SC — In a potentially landmark state court ruling, a South Carolina judge – citing the state’s Stand Your Ground Act – has granted immunity from prosecution to a man charged with shooting and killing an unarmed bystander in a Columbia case.
“When the defendant fired the shot, he reasonably believed he was being attacked with deadly force directed at his home,” said a 12-page order by Circuit Judge Maite Murphy filed Wednesday afternoon.
The case involved the 2010 shooting of Darrell Niles, 17, a Keenan High School student and basketball player, who was across the street in a car when Shannon Scott, then 33, fired his handgun. Shortly before, an SUV filled with youths who had been threatening his 15-year-old daughter drove by his house and they fired shots, according to testimony in the case.
Smith then saw Niles’ 1992 Honda, and, believing its occupants posed a danger, fired his gun from his front yard across the street, hitting Niles in the head with a .380 bullet, killing him instantly. No evidence indicated Niles was a threat to Scott or his daughter.
Fifth Circuit Solicitor Dan Johnson has appealed Murphy’s ruling to the S.C. Supreme Court. Johnson declined comment Wednesday, citing the case’s appeal status.
A key legal issue in the case is whether the state’s 2006 Stand Your Ground law will protect people who, although in legitimate fear for their lives, also happen to be bad shots or otherwise unintentionally wind up killing bystanders.
According to Scott’s attorney, Todd Rutherford of Columbia, the law gives people in fear of their lives broad rights.
“Judge Murphy followed the law,” said Rutherford, a Democratic state representative who in 2006 helped write the law.
Someone like Scott who is put in a life-and-death situation “cannot be expected to shoot straight always because they are not supposed to have their life in jeopardy," Rutherford said at Scott’s three-day immunity hearing in mid-August.
The hearing was held right before Scott was to stand trial on murder charges for killing Niles. At that hearing, Scott took the witness stand and acknowledged firing the shot that killed Niles.
Scott “was faced with what he thought was an imminent threat" from Niles’ car, Rutherford said at that hearing.
After all, Rutherford told the judge, it was 1:30 am. in the morning, and Scott – with no police around – was the only one who could take action against a carload of menacing teen “women thugs” who had just followed his daughter and her girlfriends home on the night of April 18, 2010, Rutherford said.
According to evidence in the case, Scott’s daughter telephoned him on her way home to tell him she was being followed. Scott met his daughter and some friends outside his house, told them to go in and lie down on the kitchen floor and then went around to the front yard with a gun.
It was unreasonable to expect that Scott is required “to go back into his house, in his castle ... and hope that the cavalry (police) are going to come ... . All that matters is that Mr. Scott felt his life was in jeopardy,” Rutherford said.
Rutherford’s view of events was challenged by 5th Circuit Assistant Solicitor April Sampson, who presented evidence hoping to show Scott had no idea who he was firing at.
Sampson said during the August hearing that if Murphy granted immunity to Scott it would be “be the first time any state in this Union” has granted immunity for killing an innocent bystander in a Stand Your Ground case.
“If this law were to be applied the way (Scott) wants to apply it, he could shoot a 4-year-old playing in her front yard and still be immune from prosecution,” Sampson said. South Carolina would turn into “the Wild, Wild West” if fearful people can go around shooting just about anyone, Sampson said.
Under the state’s Stand Your Ground law, people have the right to use deadly force against an assailant. However, the law doesn’t specifically say a person using deadly force can kill a bystander by mistake and be immune from any criminal prosecution.
The matter is being aired elsewhere. This week in Florida, the state legislature was considering amendments to that state’s Stand Your Ground law that would make people who shoot and kill someone by mistake while claiming Stand Your Ground protections liable for the killing.
During the August hearing, Rutherford said the real villains in this case were the carload of teens that followed Scott’s daughter and her friends home from a club. They should be charged with “felony murder,” a charge that means that they caused Niles’ death, even though Scott was the one who put the bullet in his head, Rutherford said.
If a store owner shoots and mistakenly kills a bystander during an armed robbery, Rutherford said, the store owner isn’t charged with the bystander’s murder, but the robber.
During the hearing, Murphy heard conflicting testimony as to whether anyone fired at Scott while he was in his front yard that night.
Rutherford said Niles’ death is tragic but, “He simply ended up being in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
Niles might have had “honorable intentions,” Rutherford said, but the teen put himself in danger “by following my client’s daughter home at 1:30 in the morning.”
Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott, an opponent of giving people broad latitude to kill others under the authority of a Stand Young Ground law, said, “In this military, you would call Niles’ death ‘collateral damage.’
“I guess the question is, ‘How much collateral damage do we want to have?”
TIMELINE FOR APRIL 18, 2010 shooting
>> A 15-year-old girl and five friends leave a nightclub just after midnight
>> They are pursued by four young women in an SUV.
>> They arrive home and tell her father, Shannon Scott, they’re in danger.
>> Shots are fired from the street. The friends run inside.
>> Armed with a gun, Shannon Scott goes to the front yard.
>> Scott fires several times.
>> Bystander Darrell Niles, 17, in a separate car, is killed.
Reach Monk at (803) 771-8344.