Self-defense in South Carolina

Self-defense in South Carolina is a concept that many people probably think they know and understand or at the very least have heard of it.  However, what is self-defense and what self-defense is not is probably drastically different from what the average person understands.  This article discusses the law on self-defense and how it is applied in South Carolina.

How does it work?

There is basically a two-step approach for asserting a self-defense claim.

First, the defendant need only produce evidence of self-defense that causes a jury to have a reasonable doubt about his/her guilt. State v. Bellamy.

Second, once that has been met then it is up to the State to disprove self-defense by proof beyond a reasonable doubt. State v. Wiggins; State v. Fuller; State v. Jackson.

Any evidence is enough for a self-defense jury charge. The defendant is entitled to have the jury instructed on self-defense if there is any evidence in the record from which it could reasonably be inferred that he acted in self-defense, and a trial court’s refusal to do so is reversible error.  State v. Light.

What is self-defense in South Carolina?

Self-defense is a complete defense to a crime. If established, a judge or jury must find the defendant not guilty of the crime and your actions are justified under the law.

Self defense requirements

A person is justified in using deadly force in self-defense when:

  1. The defendant was without fault in bringing on the difficulty;
  2. The defendant…actually believed he was in imminent danger of losing his life or sustaining serious bodily injury, or he actually was in such imminent danger;
  3. If the defense is based upon the defendants actual belief of imminent danger, a reasonable prudent man of ordinary firmness and courage would have entertained the same belief…and;
  4. The defendant had no other probable means of avoiding the danger of losing his own life or sustaining serious bodily injury than to act as he did in this particular instance.

State v. Dickey.

What does “without fault” mean?

You cannot be the initial aggressor and then claim self-defense unless a defendant withdraws in good faith and communicates his withdrawal to the victim by words or action. State v. Bryant.

Even if the defendant’s version is “unsupported by the physical evidence” and is “highly incredible,” if he presents evidence (i.e., by testifying) that he was not at fault in bringing on the difficulty, he is entitled to a self-defense charge. Jackson v. State. (no prejudice from failure to instruct on self-defense).

How do you show a person was the initial aggressor?  The defendant can bring up prior difficulties between him and the victim, but not the specifics. State v. Taylor.  Evidence of other specific instances of violence by the victim are only admissible if directed against the defendant or, if directed against others, were so closely connected at the point of time or occasion with the homicide as reasonably to indicate the victim’s state of mind at the time of the homicide, or to produce a reasonable apprehension of great bodily harm.

The defendant can bring up the victim’s reputation for violence, but usually not the specifics.

What is “Imminent Danger”

A person that mistakenly thought they saw a weapon in a person hand when it turns out there was not is still entitled to a self-defense charge.  The defendant has the right to act on appearances. State v. Nichols.

You don’t have to wait to before you act: The defendant does not have to wait for the victim to fire or even aim before acting in self-defense.

Can you be mistaken? A defendant is entitled to an appearances charge where the claim of self-defense arises from a mistaken appearance of danger. State v. Starnes. (where defendant testified he mistakenly thought saw weapon in victim’s hand).

What is “No means of avoiding danger” (Duty to retreat)

The defendant does not have to retreat if, by doing so, he would increase his danger of being killed or suffering serious bodily injury. State v. Fuller.

Where the defendant is justified in firing the first shot, he can continue shooting until it is apparent that the danger to his life and body have ceased. State v. Hendrix.

Normally, a defendant is not justified in shooting or using a deadly weapon after his adversary has been disarmed or disabled.

Defendant is not entitled to charge of self-defense where he is no longer in danger when he kills the victim (e.g., shot victim as he ran and was 50 feet away, not as he was standing over defendant trying to strike him). State v. Lockamy,

What is not self-defense?

Mutual Combat

Self-defense is not available to one who kills while engaging in mutual combat (mutual intent and willingness to fight, which may be shown by the acts and conduct of parties and the circumstances surrounding the combat). State v. Graham.

Mutual combat is a bar to self-defense because the defendant cannot show that he was “without fault in bringing on the difficulty.”  Mutual combat requires a mutual agreement to fight on equal terms for purposes other than protection.  The fight must arise out of a preexisting dispute and both parties must be willing to engage in an armed encounter. (A fist fight is not enough). State v. Taylor.  If a defendant is engaged in mutual combat, self-defense is still available if the defendant withdraws from the conflict before the killing occurs. State v. Graham.

Charleston criminal defense attorney

If you have been accused of a crime and want to know more about self-defense in your car call an experienced and trusted Charleston criminal defense lawyer at Dale Savage Law Firm for a free consultation today at (843) 530-7813.

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