South Carolina’s highest court ruled Wednesday a Columbia man had acted in self-defense when he returned fire during a drive-by shooting, killing an unarmed bystander.
The case began after state agents charged Shannon Scott with murder for a 2010 shooting. Scott said his fiance’s daughter had been chased home from a nightclub by other girls. Once she got home, someone in the car pursuing them began shooting at the house. Scott told investigators he got a gun himself and fired towards the street. However, the bullets struck a separate car, killing the driver 17-year-old Darrell Niles. Police said Niles was unarmed, but had apparently followed the other cars for reasons that are not clear.
The Supreme Court ruled 4-1 Scott was justified to fire back in self-defense, since he did not know at the time which car had been shooting at the house. The ruling means he is immune from any further prosecution.
“From our hindsight review of the record, we know (the shooter’s) vehicle was the SUV, but there is no evidence Scott knew that,” Justice John Few wrote in the majority opinion. “Scott knew only that his daughter had been chased home, and when they arrived he saw two vehicles behind her. While he was securing his daughter in the house he heard a gunshot. He then armed himself, exited the front of his house, and saw two vehicles driving in the opposite direction ‘maybe three miles per hour.'”
A circuit judge and the state appeals court also granted Scott immunity, with the state appealing each time. South Carolina’s Legislative Black Caucus used the case to argue South Carolina’s Castle doctrine (better known as the “Stand Your Ground” law) should be reformed. Their effort never got traction in the Republican-controlled House or Senate, however.
Niles’ mother Deatra Niles in 2013 called on legislators to make the law less lenient in such a situation. “(Darrell) was an innocent bystander. The guy who killed my son didn’t use a good judgment at all,” she said at the time. “He’s able to walk freely right now because of the Stand Your Ground law.”
Lone dissenting justice Kaye Hearn argued the Castle doctrine would apply if Scott had shot someone in the SUV, but not Niles. “There is absolutely no evidence in the record to support the… finding that Scott reasonably believed Niles ‘was engaged in an unlawful and forcible act against his home,’ she wrote. Hearn added Scott knew his fiancé’s daughter was being chased by an SUV and not the Honda he ultimately shot. She also noted Scott and other witnesses told responding Columbia police about the SUV and the officers only realized later that Niles had been shot after finding the Honda in a ditch. Another passenger in the Honda was not hurt.
Justice John Kittredge, who sided with the majority, wrote a separate brief opinion urging lawmakers to clarify state law as to what constitutes self-defense. He noted judges could be forced to interpret the law on their own, otherwise, as various self-defense shootings come before them.
The Attorney General’s Office said it would respect the court’s opinion.
“We support Stand Your Ground as a matter of law and we respect the ruling of the Court as it applies in this case,” Attorney General Alan Wilson said in a brief statement.