Christmas Eve shooting needs timely resolution

Justice needs to move faster in the case of a Bluffton man who was shot six times and killed on Christmas Eve 2010.

As the second anniversary of the death nears, attorneys involved in the manslaughter case say it could be years before it is known when, or whether, the case will go to trial.

That is not good enough in a nation that includes the right to a speedy trial in its Constitution.

Either state law that is enabling the delay needs to be changed, or the state Attorney General's Office needs more staff to get appeals resolved -- or both.

Tow-truck driver Preston Oates, who is free on bond, is accused of shooting to death Carlos Olivera in a greater Bluffton neighborhood. Olivera was shot five times in the back in a confrontation over an improperly parked minivan on which Oates had put a "boot."

Oates' attorneys contend he should not be tried because South Carolina's "Castle Doctrine" allows people to use deadly force to defend themselves in their homes, vehicles or businesses. They say that is what Oates was doing.

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.

But that ruling has been appealed to the S.C. Court of Appeals. The local solicitor is no longer involved, and the state Attorney General's Office says it is too swamped with other cases to turn its attention to the sensational case.

"We're understaffed and we've had our resources cut, so we do what we can," deputy attorney general Bryan Stirling said. "We're inundated with cases and we're trying to get to it."

The office has so much other work that it hasn't yet asked the appeals court for a date to argue the Oates case, Stirling said.

Fourteenth Judicial Circuit Solicitor Duffie Stone has said that claiming self-defense allows attorneys to appeal murder and manslaughter charges up to the highest court and has increased delays in prosecuting cases in this state and others.

Even further delay is on the horizon should either side decide to appeal to the state Supreme Court.

South Carolina needs to re-examine its broad Castle Doctrine law to see that it is not too lenient in granting self-defense claims and that it does not bog down justice. Originally, the doctrine was to give people the right to protect themselves in their own homes. That is an ancient right, grounded in common law and the Constitution. Expansions of that right in this state and others appear to be making cases more difficult and more time-consuming to prosecute.

In the Bluffton case, the defendant is exercising a legal option that might get the case dismissed, and that is his right.

But that should not mean that the case goes into a black hole of inactivity. That is not fair to the family of the deceased, the defendant, the community or to the basic principles of American justice. If the legislature wants an expanded self-defense law, it should also provide the money for enough state emloyees to move appeals more quickly.