State Circuit Judge Thomas Russo indicated Wednesday he won’t have a quick ruling on whether a Lexington High School graduate can claim a Stand Your Ground defense in last February’s fatal stabbing of a Dutch Fork High School junior after a basketball game.
If Russo rules that Kieran Dennis can claim Stand Your Ground, Dennis will have his pending murder charge dropped and win immunity from being prosecuted on any criminal charges in connection with the death of Da’Von Capers.
But if Russo rules against Dennis, the now 19-year-old Lexington teen will stand trial for murder, most likely sometime next year at the Lexington County Westbrook Judicial Center.
Dennis is a graduate of Lexington High School; Capers, 17, attended Dutch Fork. The two schools are rivals, and that rivalry played a part in the escalating tensions that led to Capers’ death last Feb. 17 after Dennis stabbed Capers in the parking lot of a Lexington eatery.
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Russo said he would give prosecutors Shawn Graham and Rick Hubbard, and Dennis’ defense attorney Todd Rutherford, seven days to file written motions arguing for and against a Stand Your Ground defense.
Russo made his announcement after three days of witnesses who testified before him in a non-jury proceeding. Most were current or former high school students who witnessed all or part of the incidents leading up to and including Capers’ stabbing in the parking lot of the Cook-Out Restaurant in Lexington.
Both sides agreed on some central facts: that Dennis had stopped his Ford Explorer SUV in the Cook-Out parking lot and a half-dozen unarmed Dutch Fork teens, including one female, gathered at his driver’s side window and were yelling at him. Then Dennis grabbed a long black knife from within his SUV and stabbed Capers, who was standing outside the vehicle.
During the hearing Thursday, Dennis and his supporting witnesses testified he was just trying to leave the Cook-Out when he stopped his SUV and harassing Dutch Fork teens began to menace him. Dennis, who was on the witness stand for two hours, testified Capers tried to reach through his car window and that’s when Dennis, fearing for his life, made a quick stab at Capers, piercing his heart and liver.
Then, as Capers fell dying to the ground before his shocked friends, Dennis drove off, not knowing – he testified – that he had delivered a fatal blow.
The deadly encounter had taken around a minute.
According to prosecution witnesses, Dennis and his friends had gone to the Cook-Out intending to start a fight. As Dennis and friends in two other vehicles were leaving, Dennis’s friend in the lead vehicle –Will Zander – tossed a fistful of money on the pavement before a crowd of Dutch Fork students, saying, “Hey, this is what you all are worth!” Then Zander exited his vehicle with a pipe in his hand, daring the Dutch Fork students to fight him.
When Dennis drove his SUV behind Zander’s car, almost striking some Dutch Fork students, Dutch Fork students gathered at his driver’s side window, cursing him for going so fast. Prosecution witnesses testified that Capers made no threatening actions, but said, “What are you doing, trying to hit people – if you want to hit people, get out of the car.” That’s when Dennis reached through his open window and stabbed Capers, prosecution witnesses said.
In his closing argument, Rutherford told the judge that the state’s Stand Your Ground law gives someone in his car the right to use deadly force if he fears for his life and that the Dutch Fork students who gathered at Dennis’s SUV driver’s side window were the clear aggressors. Several dozen other Dutch Fork students were watching nearby.
“All they had to do was leave (Dennis) alone,” Rutherford said. “Mr. Dennis regrets this, not because he didn’t defend himself but because of where we are now. He is sorry for the Capers family and their loss. He wishes he didn’t stab anyone. But he wouldn’t have stabbed anyone had they not come to his window, threatened him, made him feel like he was in danger of imminent peril and not left until he acted.”
Prosecutor Shawn Graham of the 11th Circuit solicitor’s office told the judge that the Stand Your Ground law is a “shield” that protects innocent people who are in no way at fault – but it doesn’t protect people like Dennis who are spoiling for a fight.
Dennis had made menacing remarks to Dutch Fork students earlier in the night, had gone to the Cook-Out looking for a confrontation and sped through the parking lot to join his friend Zander, who was staring down Dutch Fork students with a pipe in his hand, said Graham, citing testimony from Dutch Fork students.
“(Dennis) had other choices,” Graham said. “Even at that last minute, he could have driven away. He could have rolled up his window. He could have backed up. He didn’t have to do what he did. He had no injuries on him.”
Dennis and his friends were upset that Dutch Fork had beaten Lexington High in the basketball game earlier that night, Graham said. They deliberately chose to drive through a crowd of Dutch Fork students as they left the Cook-Out because “they didn’t want it to look like they got run off.”
Graham said, “You cannot use this (Stand Your Ground) act as a shield for choices that you made that caused this to happen.”