A circuit court judge late Thursday denied bond to an 18-year-old Lexington High School graduate accused of murder in last week’s fatal stabbing of a Dutch Fork student.
In denying bail, Judge William Keesley found that Kierin Dennis “poses a danger to the community.”
Although witnesses testified that Dennis is an upstanding, church-going youth, Keesley wrote, “The undisputed evidence is that the defendant knew he was entering a hostile environment and that he was the one who was armed.”
In his five-page order, Keesley also noted that Dennis was being held in solitary confinement at the Lexington County jail, with the light around the clock. The judge ordered authorities to try to put Dennis “in a more normal jail environment, suitable for someone his age and size.”
Dennis, handcuffed and wearing a bulletproof vest under an orange jail jumpsuit, had appeared before Keesley in a bond hearing earlier Thursday.
During that hearing, Dennis’ attorney, Todd Rutherford of Columbia, told Keesley that Dennis will seek to invoke South Carolina’s “Stand Your Ground” law – which, if accepted by the court, would make him immune from prosecution.
Rutherford also told Keesley that on the night Dutch Fork senior Da’Von Capers was stabbed to death, it was Dennis who was in “fear for his life” and a “victim” and that Capers was the aggressor.
The stabbing took place Feb. 17 in a parking lot near the Cookout, a Lexington teen hangout, following a tension-filled high school basketball game between the two high schools.
In invoking the “Stand Your Ground” defense, Dennis fully admits killing Capers, Rutherford said.
“Mr. Capers reached his hand into my client’s car, and at that point, my client felt in fear for his life and defended himself,” Rutherford said. “He was actually the victim.”
“He did not intend to kill Mr. Capers,” Rutherford said. Dennis – out of fear – instinctively grabbed a 4-inch knife he had on his lap and thrust it at Capers.
AT THE SCENE
Numerous new details about the stabbing were revealed during the bond hearing at the Westbrook Lexington County Judicial Center.
Eleventh Circuit assistant prosecutor Rick Hubbard described a kind of class warfare and ongoing tension between students of Dutch Fork High and Lexington High – the emotional backdrop to the deadly encounter.
In their ongoing rivalry – and just before Capers was stabbed to death – Lexington students threw money at Dutch Fork kids to show them how needy they are, Hubbard said.
“It’s something about Lexington kids are considered to be rich kids, living on parents’ money, and the Lexington kids look at Dutch Fork kids as thugs – it’s just that tension that was there,” Hubbard said.
When the money was thrown outside the Cookout restaurant, Hubbard said, the Dutch Fork students – including the 17-year-old Capers – scrambled for it, Hubbard said. That’s when Dennis steered his SUV toward the group of students, winding up in their midst.
At that point, one student started videoing the encounter with an iPad. The crowd of Dutch Fork students grew angry and shouted at Dennis, “You almost hit us!” said Hubbard.
The video doesn’t show the stabbing, Hubbard said, but “all of a sudden, you see that Explorer take off.”
“When that happens, (on) the same video, you see the victim, Da’Von Capers, walking from the scene. He is lifting his shirt. He’s been stabbed. He’s bleeding profusely,” Hubbard said.
“The knife went in his chest,” Hubbard said. Capers’ friends got medical help quickly, but the wound to the heart and liver were so devastating, he “bled out” and died.
Also testifying was Lexington police Lt. Carroll Bledsoe, who has interviewed numerous students.
“Several of the witnesses specifically state they saw the defendant’s arm come out of the window and strike the victim, Capers, in the chest,” testified Bledsoe. “At the time, everybody thought ... he had simply punched the victim. In fact, he had stabbed the victim.”
Hubbard blamed Dennis for the death.
“The incident was basically over until the defendant and his friends chose the route they chose to leave, and then throwing the money out into the road just drew all those kids out into the road,” Hubbard said.
Hubbard said the case is still being investigated. Police are still trying to track down all the students in the video clustered around Dennis’ SUV window.
“We have talked to at least 15 or more of the kids,” Hubbard said.
Rutherford, in his remarks to the judge, said Dennis did not know that the person in the car ahead of him had thrown money – “about $5” – onto the road.
Dennis was leaving the Cookout because Dutch Fork students grossly outnumbered Lexington High students and he felt afraid, Rutherford said.
Capers’ father, Laronzo Capers, told the judge he did not want Dennis to get out of jail on bond.
“He’s a danger to society,” Capers said. “He brought that knife along with the intention to do something with it. It just so happened he killed my son.”
But Rutherford and four witnesses, including three current and former pastors at Dennis’ church, Willow Ridge, told the judge that Dennis is a fine youth.
“I’m just absolutely stunned. ... None of this makes sense,” said Bill Howard, a former pastor, who told the judge he had known Dennis for more than 10 years. “I’ve never seen an ounce of aggression from him.”
Dennis’ mother, Tawanna, a 21-year military veteran and civilian worker at Fort Jackson, said she brought her son up to be a Christian since he was in the fifth grade and that he visits the elderly in nursing homes.
Rutherford said that after graduating from Lexington High last year, Dennis went to welder’s school and now has a $14-an-hour job in Prosperity. He does missionary work and has gone to Haiti twice, Rutherford said.
“This is a good kid who got caught in a bad situation,” Rutherford said.
Rutherford suggested a bond of not more than $50,000, arguing Dennis poses no danger.
In his bond denial, the judge noted that “unfortunately, it is not unique for a young man to demonstrate different character traits outside of a church setting.”
KNOWN AND UNKNOWN
Other details that surfaced at Thursday’s hearing included:• So many videos from smart phones were taken of the event and the circumstances leading up to it that police and defense attorney Rutherford are still collecting them. Police have an iPad on which nearly the entire outside event – which took less than a minute – was captured.
• No one actually saw Capers get stabbed. Instead, they saw him at the side of Dennis’s Ford Explorer and what they thought was a punch thrown at Capers body by Dennis.
• On returning home that night, Dennis washed his clothes and buried the murder weapon in a neighbor’s yard.
• In an initial videotaped interview at Lexington police headquarters two hours after the stabbing, Dennis at first lied to police about killing Capers, saying nothing had happened. Then, in a later interview, with his attorney present, Dennis told a different tale.
“He’s scared, he has a knife, he puts the knife in his lap, just for protection,” Hubbard says. “He says no one hit him, no one touched him, but Da’Von Capers stuck his head in the window and at some point stuck his arm in as if he’s reaching for the steering wheel or the keys.”
“He said, at that point, he punched Mr. Capers. He said he didn’t really realize he had the knife in his hand and had stabbed him in the heart,” Hubbard said.• The knife Dennis used was described as a Gerber-type knife about 4 inches long by Hubbard. Gerber makes various kinds of knives. Most are known for their fixed, sharp blades and tough metal and easily-graspable handles and are commonly used in combat or self-defense. Hubbard did not reveal the precise brand and style.
Hubbard also laid out what police have reconstructed as the rough sequence of events that night.
After the game, Hubbard said, “a large number of students” from both schools ended up at the Cookout. Videos show a packed restaurant and then Dennis and some friends enter. His friends ordered food, and he steps outside to make a phone call.
Then a Dutch Fork student steps out where Dennis is, and Dennis’ friends also exit. “There’s an exchange of words, and at that point, you see the restaurant clear out, All those students spill out into the parking lot. It looks like there’s going to be trouble,” Hubbard said.
At that point, Dennis and his friends go to their vehicles, parked behind the Cookout.
“It looks like at that point, everybody’s going to make it home,” Hubbard said. “There are no fights.”
But then, Dennis and his friends line their vehicles up, facing the students about 40 yards away. And seconds later, one driver steers his car toward the Dutch Fork students, throwing money. Then Dennis follows.
Unanswered questions include:• Did Dennis and Capers know each other, or had they had words with each other before their fatal encounter?
• What kind of text messages and photos are on Dennis’ iPhone? Hubbard said they could provide crucial evidence. Until now, Dennis had refused to tell police his iPhone password. But at the hearing, Rutherford said Dennis will give his password.
• Why did Dennis, who family and pastors said was a church-going youth and a history of going on church missions, carry a deadly knife? Where did he get such a knife?
• If so many students gathered at a public place after a tension-filled basketball game, why were there no police or responsible adults on the scene?
Prosecutors stressed that Dennis had lied and he had deliberately provoked the incident.
From behind the Cookout, Hubbard said, Dennis could have seen the masses of Dutch Fork students ahead of his car and easily gone out one of the exits on his left or right. Instead, “he chooses basically to drive up through the gauntlet,” he said.
Dennis was returned to the county detention center. He did not speak except to talk quietly with Rutherford.
More than 60 friends, relatives and fellow church members showed up to support him.
MAKING THE ARGUMENT
“Stand Your Ground” defenses are increasingly common.
In Florida, a 71-year-old man last month shot and killed a fellow theater-goer who threw popcorn at him in a movie theater. The shooter claims he feared for his life. Authorities have charged him with second-degree murder.
South Carolina’s 2006 “Stand Your Ground” law allows a person who fears for his life to defend himself, with deadly force if deemed necessary, if he is in a place where he has a right to be, including a vehicle.
Rutherford, as a state representative, voted for but did not author or sponsor the bill that became law.
But when it comes to stand your ground cases, Rutherford has experience.
In October, he won a potentially landmark legal victory when he convinced a state judge to grant a Columbia man immunity from prosecution after he was charged with shooting and killing an unarmed teenage bystander.
In that case, Shannon Scott had fired his pistol at a car he thought contained people who were menacing his daughter. In reality, the car contained 17-year-old Keenan High School basketball player Darrell Niles, who had driven to the scene because he was trying to help Scott’s daughter.
At the time, Scoot – armed with a borrowed handgun – was in his front yard, and Niles was in a car across the street.
Following the ruling by Circuit Judge Maite Murphy, 5th Circuit Solicitor Dan Johnson appealed it to the S.C. Supreme Court. That court has made no decision.