Court makes right call on self-defense claims

info@islandpacket.comSeptember 3, 2013 

It didn't take long to see the impact of the state Supreme Court's Aug. 21 ruling on South Carolina's self-defense law.

On that same day, the state Court of Appeals dismissed Preston Oates' challenge to a lower court's decision to deny his claim of self-defense in the December 2010 shooting death of Carlos Olivera.

That sets the stage for a too long-delayed trial for Oates on manslaughter charges.

The high court's ruling makes clear that claims of self-defense should not be used to put a case in a seemingly never-ending appeals limbo. The defendant still gets a chance to make his case for immunity, but doesn't get to appeal a decision against him on the issue until after a trial. If he's found innocent, there's no need for an appeal, and prosecution isn't delayed. It is no different from other aspects of a case that might be appealed, but only after a conviction.

The ruling addresses what prosecutors say is an increasingly common problem since the state's self-defense law was expanded in 2006. Claiming self-defense allows attorneys to appeal murder and manslaughter charges up to the highest court, causing delays in prosecution.

Oates claims he should be immune from prosecution under the state's "Castle Doctrine," which allows people to use deadly force to defend themselves in their homes, vehicles or businesses. Oates is accused of killing 34-year-old Olivera in a dispute that erupted after Oates put a boot on Olivera's van.

Local prosecutors contend the Castle Doctrine does not apply because, while Olivera had showed a gun, he never fired it, and he was no longer a threat when the shooting began.

Twice, a Circuit Court judge ruled that Oates is not shielded from trial by the self-defense law.

In its recent ruling, the Supreme Court said it was clarifying a previous ruling. The high court had ruled that a judge's decision to grant immunity from prosecution could be appealed before a trial because the case would be over otherwise. But a decision to deny immunity would not be the end of the case and so did not warrant an immediate appeal.

Quoting from an earlier decision, the court wrote: "It is a bad practice, and generally condemned, to hear appeals by piecemeal, especially in criminal cases; for it is destructive of the prompt administration of justice, which is so essential to the peace of society. To allow appeals to be heard from such preliminary rulings would enable a party charged with the most serious crime always to secure a continuance, when otherwise not entitled to it, by simply moving to quash the indictment, and when his motion is overruled, give notice of appeal from such ruling, and thereby stop the trial."

That certainly seemed to be the case with the nearly 3-year-old charges against Oates. And the situation was made worse by the state Attorney General's Office, whose job was to handle the appeal on behalf of 14th Circuit Solicitor Duffie Stone. The Attorney General's Office didn't file its final brief in the case until June, more than a year after Oates filed his appeal of the March 2012 decision denying his immunity claim.

Justice Costa Pleicones disagreed with the ruling on whether denying immunity could be appealed immediately. He objected to a defendant's having to "endure a prosecution" before a final decision on immunity is made and maintained the legislature intended to allow such a decision to be appealed immediately.

But the court's majority said the law did not spell out a procedure for determining immunity. "If (Pleicones') clairvoyance is correct, we invite the General Assembly to amend the act to reflect an immediate appeal in clear terms."

We hope lawmakers don't accept that invitation even if so inclined. The court's ruling is fair, practical and based on solid legal precedent. A defendant gets due process, and justice is not delayed.

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