Editorial | Debate over SC’s stand-your-ground law has merit

07/17/2013 1:29 PM

07/17/2013 1:31 PM

The following editorial appeared Sunday in the Florence Morning News:

The “stand your ground” law is getting new scrutiny this week because of a murder trial in Columbia where a defendant is trying to claim he stood his ground… while standing on the victim's ground.

Gregg Issac is one of three suspects linked to the fatal shooting of 30-year-old Tony Corbitt in Corbitt's apartment on Oct. 27, 2005. The investigation meandered along before arrests were finally made last year. Authorities say Isaac and two others, armed with handguns, kicked in the front door of Corbitt's apartment, assaulted and killed him in front on his 8-year-old child.

During his trial this week, Issac, who pleaded not guilty, even admitted firing the fatal shots.

Yet, Issac's attorneys pushed for a hearing in an effort to invoke the law based on the stand your ground concept. A circuit court judge presiding over the case flatly turned down the request, but now the S.C. Supreme Court has stepped in, halting the case and sending the jury home — a rare move on the high court's part — to determine at what point in a trial process a judge should hold a full hearing about whether evidence can be introduced that builds the defendant's assertion they were in fear for their lives when they used deadly force.

At first blush, this looks like a frivolous and pointless debate. In Issac's case, not only was the concept never discussed as a trial issue until this week, the very merits of the stand your ground claim are violated because he was allegedly doing something illegal at the time he fired the fatal shots.

But that's not what piqued the Supreme Court's interest. The justices are not considering the substance of the 2006 law, but rather the trial process. Up until now, full pretrial hearings would take place in order to review a stand your ground claim.

If a request for a hearing on the merits of the affirmative defense of stand your ground is denied, the defendant may be being denied due process.

The stand your ground concept gained national notoriety when it was tested in the George Zimmerman trial now going on in Florida. Zimmerman's team stopped short of arguing he was immune from prosecution, but did say he feared for his life in his fateful confrontation with Trayvon Martin.

Issac also said he was frightened, believing his life was in jeopardy while intruding in Corbitt's home.

So the justices will hear Issac's argument at a date to be determined, and he will likely get his pretrial evidentiary hearing — which was initially denied — before the trial can go forward. The case would then be remanded for the hearing — the hearing is held; the motion would almost certainly be denied — and then the case gets tried.

It's nothing more than a procedural win, but if a delay or a fleeting, desperate grasp at an acquittal is what the defending attorneys sought, then it is a win nonetheless.

We are curious whether the admissions by the defendant in the pretrial hearing will be privileged or whether they will be heard by a jury. That could certainly make this strategy backfire on the defendant.

Those affected by Corbitt's murder likely want swift justice, but rectitude can occasionally take some time, as they know all too well.

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