The XX Factor

South Carolina Says “Stand Your Ground” Law Doesn’t Apply to Abused Women

Do abused women have a right to stand their ground in their own homes?

South Carolina has an expansive “stand your ground” law that paves the way for someone to get immunity from prosecution by declaring that they killed another person in self-defense. Liberals have been critical of these laws, arguing that they make it far too easy for violent people to deliberately provoke or escalate confrontations and then avoid prosecution when things get out of hand. (There is some proof that such laws correlate with a rise in the murder rate.) There are also concerns that the laws are unfairly applied, due to massive racial disparities in who successfully invokes “stand your ground” to avoid punishment. Now comes a reason for women to be especially worried.

In South Carolina, prosecutors are trying to argue that a woman’s right to stand her ground in a domestic dispute is less than a man’s right to stand his ground with some stranger he’s gotten into a fight with. Andrew Knapp at the Charleston Post and Courierwhich has been aggressively covering the issue of domestic violence in recent months—reports that three North Charleston women have been “charged with murder during the past two years after stabbing a boyfriend or a roommate she said attacked her,” despite the existence of the state’s strong “stand your ground” law. 

Knapp focuses on the case of Whitlee Jones, who killed her boyfriend Eric Lee and claimed that she was acting in self-defense. Earlier that evening, a neighbor called the cops to report Lee assaulting Jones, saying she saw Lee pulling Jones down the street by her hair. Jones fled the scene before the police arrived and returned later to fetch her belongings. Lee confronted her at the scene. She says he shook her, but prosecutors deny it. She stabbed him in the heart, killing him, and fled once more. 

“Nearly two years later, a judge found earlier this month that Jones, now 25, had a right to kill Lee under the S.C. Protection of Persons and Property Act, which allows people in certain situations to use force when faced with serious injury,” Knapp writes. But the prosecutors are planning to fight the decision because, they argue, “stand your ground” laws should not cover domestic violence situations.

“(The Legislature’s) intent … was to provide law-abiding citizens greater protections from external threats in the form of intruders and attackers,” Kidd, the case’s lead prosecutor, told The Post and Courier. “We believe that applying the statute so that its reach into our homes and personal relationships is inconsistent with (its) wording and intent.”

Perhaps Jones could have done more to avoid the confrontation with Lee. She could have tried to get her things at a later time, when tempers had cooled or when Lee wasn’t at home. But, as Nicole Flatow at ThinkProgress points out, South Carolina has allowed other people to argue self-defense under “stand your ground” in much iffier situations. “The law has been used to protect a man who killed an innocent bystander while pointing his gun at several teens he called ‘women thugs.’”

The question of whether someone should have less right to protect herself against someone she knows than against a stranger is at the heart of this case, as Knapp explains. 

The crux of Kidd’s appeal, though, is rooted in the wording of the statute itself.

It says that people should be expected to fear for their lives if someone is breaking into their home, their car or their business. Most people in those situations can defend themselves. But if people share their home with the target of their force, they don’t have that “presumption” of fear, the law says.

The problem, of course, is that many women who live with abusers are, in fact, living in fear. Research shows women are 16 times more likely to be killed by a man they know than a stranger. In this specific case, neighbors called 911 mere hours before the killing because they feared for Jones’s safety. 

“Stand your ground” laws are a problem. They encourage people to escalate confrontations instead of fleeing or summoning help. But if a state insists on having them, then they should be applied evenly and fairly. They certainly shouldn’t allow men confronting strangers to have more rights than women facing down the dangers of domestic violence.