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State v. Jones

Supreme Court of South Carolina

May 18, 2016

The State, Appellant,
v.
Whitlee Jones, Respondent

         Heard January 13, 2016.

          Appeal From Charleston County J. C. Nicholson, Jr., Circuit Court Judge. Appellate Case No. 2014-002123.

         Attorney General Alan McCrory Wilson, Chief Deputy Attorney General John W. McIntosh, Senior Assistant Deputy Attorney General Donald J. Zelenka, Assistant Attorney General Alphonso Simon, Jr., all of Columbia; Solicitor Scarlett Anne Wilson, of Charleston, for Appellant.

         Chief Appellate Defender Robert Michael Dudek, of Columbia, for Respondent.

          OPINION

         BEATTY, JUSTICE:

         Whitlee Jones was indicted for the murder of her boyfriend after she fatally stabbed him at their shared residence. In a pretrial motion, Jones asserted immunity from prosecution under the " Protection of Persons and Property Act" (the Act).[1] Following a hearing, the circuit court judge granted the motion, finding Jones established by a preponderance of the evidence that she was entitled to immunity under section 16-11-440(C) of the Act.[2] In this direct appeal,[3] the State challenges the judge's order on two assertions of error: (1) section 16-11-440(C) is inapplicable because the stabbing occurred within Jones's residence and not " another place where [s]he ha[d] the right to be" as identified in subsection (C); and, alternatively, (2) Jones failed to establish that she was acting in self-defense when she stabbed her boyfriend. We affirm.

         I. Factual / Procedural History

         During the early morning hours of November 2, 2012, Jones fatally stabbed Eric Lee, her live-in boyfriend, one time in the chest while in their shared residence. The events leading up to the stabbing were established during the pretrial hearing.

         In her written statement to police, Jones recounted that during the evening of November 1, 2012, she and Lee were involved in a physical altercation over a cell phone that Lee had purchased and given to Jones. According to Jones, Lee began pushing her and punching her as she began to leave their apartment. Jones stated that, while she was outside the apartment, Lee pulled her hair and attempted to force her back inside. During this confrontation, some of Jones's hair weave was removed from her head as Lee dragged her down the street. A neighbor, who witnessed the commotion, called 911 for help at 11:28 p.m. Jones claimed that Lee continued to try and force her back into the apartment. After she threw the phone on the ground, Jones was able to flee the apartment when Lee went to retrieve the phone. At some point during the confrontation, Jones called her friend, Erica Grant, and left a voicemail message urging Grant to pick her up from the apartment. The message also recorded Jones repeatedly pleading for Lee to " get off" of her.

         Jones stated that she returned to the apartment after she " cooled down." When she opened the door, Jones observed Lee throwing her things around. After Jones called her cousin, Jasmine Taylor, to pick her up, she began collecting her things as Lee yelled at her that " [it's] over" and " rush[ed][her] to leave." When Taylor and Grant arrived at the apartment, Jones began to place her belongings in the car. According to Jones, Lee followed her around the apartment making sure that she did not take any of his possessions. Taylor, who assisted Jones while Grant remained in the car, testified that Lee continued to argue with Jones.

         Jones stated that when she went upstairs to retrieve her shoes, she noticed a knife and " grabbed it for protection." After the three went downstairs, Jones and Lee remained in the living room while Taylor stood outside the living room. Jones stated that Lee " started yelling and pushing me again telling me to get out." Jones further claimed that Lee then grabbed her, asked her if she was mad, and began shaking her while telling her " It's over. It's your fault." Because Jones believed that Lee was getting ready to hit her again, she " grabbed the knife out of [her] shirt and stabbed him" one time in the chest. Jones then ran out of the apartment. Taylor did not witness the stabbing, but stated that she heard an " uh" before Jones ran out.

         Taylor and Jones then got into Grant's car and drove away. However, they only drove around the corner before Jones told them to turn around and admitted that she had stabbed Lee. They returned to the apartment where they found Lee on the ground in the doorway. Taylor testified that Lee was still conscious and was moaning. Jones and Taylor drove Lee to the hospital where he later died. Grant remained at the apartment to wait for police, who had been called by a neighbor at 12:12 a.m. on November 2, 2012 to report what had happened.

         Subsequently, a Charleston County grand jury indicted Jones for murder. Jones asserted immunity from prosecution under section 16-11-440(C) of the Act. Following a hearing, the circuit court judge granted Jones's motion. Initially, the judge noted that section 16-11-440(A) would not apply in Jones's case because Lee was a lawful resident of the place where the stabbing occurred. As a result, the judge found Jones was " defaulted to Section (C)." The judge explained:

Section (C) operates in a similar manner as section (A), but does not allow for the presumption of reasonable fear. Because [Lee] was a co-resident, subsection (A) is inapplicable to [Jones] and she is therefore defaulted into subsection (C).

         In so ruling, the judge rejected the State's argument that the language in subsection (C), " in another place where he has a right to be," would exclude Jones's dwelling, residence or occupied vehicle, because those places are expressly identified in subsection (A). The judge determined " the 'another place' language is intended to encompass dwellings, residences or occupied vehicles, along with any other place where a person has a right to be and is acting lawfully."

         The judge explained that " [o]ne seeking to utilize section (C) against another co-resident simply loses the presumption of reasonable fear of imminent peril of death or great bodily injury" as provided in section (A). The judge recognized that while section (C) applies to an incident that occurs in a dwelling, residence or occupied vehicle, it removes the presumption of reasonable fear. The judge reasoned that " [t]o hold that a person cannot utilize Section 16-11-440(C) if the person were inside of their own home would create a nonsensical result--that a person can defend themselves from attack by their spouses, lovers, or any other co-resident while outside of their home, but not inside of their home."

         Applying subsection (C) , the judge found Jones established by a preponderance of the evidence that she was entitled to immunity under section 16-11-440(C) because she: (1) was not engaged in unlawful activity at the time of the attack; (2) was attacked in a place where she had a right to be; (3) did not have a duty to retreat but, rather, had the right to stand her ground and meet force with deadly force; and (4) acted in self-defense. The State filed a direct appeal from this order.

         II. Standard of Review

          " A claim of immunity under the Act requires a pretrial determination using a preponderance of the evidence standard, which this court reviews under an abuse of discretion standard of review." State v. Curry, 406 S.C. 364, 370, 752 S.E.2d 263, 266 (2013); see State v. Duncan, 392 S.C. 404, 411, 709 S.E.2d 662, 665 (2011) (recognizing that the proper standard for the circuit court to use in determining immunity under the Act is a preponderance of the evidence). An abuse of discretion occurs when the trial court's ruling is based on an error of law or, when grounded in factual conclusions, is without evidentiary support. State v. Pittman, 373 S.C. 527, 647 S.E.2d 144 (2007).

         III. Discussion

         A. Arguments

         The State contends Jones is not immune from prosecution under section 16-11-440(C) because the stabbing occurred in Jones's residence and not in " another place where she had a right to be" as identified in subsection (C). Because the South Carolina Legislature used the phrase " dwelling, residence, or occupied vehicle" in subsections (A), (B), (D), and (E) of section 16-11-440, the State maintains the Legislature's purposeful use of the term " another place" in subsection (C) means the Legislature clearly intended subsection (C) to apply to places other than a defendant's dwelling, residence, or occupied vehicle.

         Further, the State argues that if the Legislature intended the Act to cover scenarios similar to the one presented in Jones's case, then subsection (B) would not expressly limit the application of subsection (A) when the person " [a]gainst whom the deadly force is used has the right to be in or is a lawful resident of the dwelling, residence, or occupied vehicle." Finally, the State asserts the legislative intent of the Act was to expand the common law Castle Doctrine to include an occupied vehicle and place of business, which was accomplished by the enactment of subsections (A) and (C), respectively.

         Even if subsection (C) is applicable, the State claims the judge erred in finding Jones established that she was acting in self-defense when she stabbed Lee. The State submits the evidence in the record does not support the judge's determination that Jones believed she was in imminent danger of losing her life or sustaining bodily injury and that such fear was reasonable. The State notes that no witnesses saw Lee hit or attack Jones just prior to the stabbing. The State also points out that Jones voluntarily returned to the apartment after the initial physical altercation and was not being held against her will as Lee was insisting that she leave the apartment. Consequently, the State contends the judge erred in granting Jones immunity from prosecution under the Act.

         B. Analysis

         1. Applicability of Subsection (C)

         a. Castle Doctrine Codified / Default into Subsection (C)

          Under the Castle Doctrine, " [o]ne attacked, without fault on his part, on his own premises, has the right, in establishing his plea of self-defense, to claim immunity from the law of retreat, which ordinarily is an essential element of that defense." State v. Gordon, 128 S.C. 422, 425, 122 S.E. 501, 502 (1924) (citation omitted). The Legislature explicitly codified the Castle Doctrine when it promulgated the Act and extended its protection, when applicable, to include an occupied vehicle and a person's place of business. See S.C. Code Ann. ยง 16-11-420(A) (2015) ( " It is the intent of the General Assembly to codify the common law Castle Doctrine ...


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