Thursday, August 07, 2003

The Charelston Post & Courier has a follow up story on William Gates. For previous posts on Mr. Gates please look here & here.

On to the article...

"Is William Gates a man who did what he had to do to defend himself and his home, or did he take the law into his own hands by gunning down two men in front of his house?"

Let's see... a man who had been complaining to police about the crime in his neighborhood to little effect hears gunshots early in the morning. He believes his wife was hit but said gunshots. He grabs a shotgun to see what is causing the gunfire. He see three men shooting at each other in his front yard. He shoots 2 of them thus ending the gunfire (the third man had been shot by the other two).

Barring any new revelations I'd say that was self defense. Although brownie points should be awarded for the use of the phrase 'gunning down' when the simpler, less dramatic & more accurate phrase 'shooting' should have been used.

"That's up to Charleston County prosecutors to decide and Solicitor Ralph Hoisington hasn't announced his decision yet."

Unless there is some physical evidence that could disprove Mr. Gates claims of self defense then why the hell hasn't the Solicitor made a decision? I would venture to guess that the answer has more to do with politics than the law or the facts.

"Trey Walker, a spokesman for South Carolina Attorney General Henry McMaster, said the state attorney general's office had no comment on this case and that it would be solely up to Hoisington whether Gates faces charges.
'Ultimately, he is the legal authority in that case,' Walker said."

It is correct that in local matters a state attorney general would be right to refrain from interfering with the local prosecutor. However I believe any charges that could be filed against Mr. Gates would be based on state law with the exception of firing a gun inside the city limits. I am not familiar with how South Carolina's legal system is structured so this is just speculation, but since most if not all charges would be based on violations of state law, then I'd think the SC Attorney General could offer an opinion one way or the other, or even decide to take the case over himself. But if any readers could explain to me why this is an incorrect assumption, I'd appreciate it.

"Charlie Condon, the former state attorney general, said the 67-year-old Gates appeared to have been well within his legal rights when he shot at three men Gates said were drug dealers engaged in a shootout in his front yard.
'Generally speaking, you do have the right to defend yourself from danger,' Condon said. 'I think a self-defense case has been made'.

Condon, who as attorney general in 2001 instituted a home-invasion policy that protected citizens from prosecution for defending against intruders, said he hopes Gates won't face charges.
'My sympathies are with the gentleman,' he said. 'I really do admire him for sticking it out and not letting the criminals run him out of his home'. "

Too bad Mr. Condon is retired.

"Police confiscated Gates' shotgun and six other guns inside his home, but he was not arrested. Charleston Police Chief Reuben Greenberg, who caused controversy earlier this year when he encouraged merchants to arm themselves as protection against robberies, said Gates did not take the law into his own hands but was merely protecting himself and his home.
Greenberg declined further comment."

So if Chief Greenberg feels it was self defense then why the hell did he take away Mr. Gates' means of self defense?

"Vance Cowden, a law professor at the University of South Carolina, said state laws provide for self-defense and defense of property.
'Use of deadly force is usually only proper when protecting life and not merely when property rights are at stake,' he said. 'You have to believe you are in eminent danger of losing your life and it has to be a belief that an ordinary, prudent person would entertain.'
Cowden said whether Gates faces charges will likely come down to whether prosecutors believe Gates rightfully feared for his life, a decision that could be swayed by the fact that the neighborhood is known for drug activity and someone had previously shot into his house. Prosecutors could also decide that Gates escalated the situation by his actions.
Cowden said responses to physical threats have to be 'proportional.'
'If someone throws a snowball at you and you shoot them, that's not proportional,' he said."

This is partially incorrect. Fear of losing ones' life is not the only justification for using deadly force. Most state laws allow for the use of deadly force when you feel you are danger of serious bodily harm as well as lose of life. To limit that only to loss of life is a bit misleading.
For example if you were certain you were going to be raped but not killed then deadly force would be inexcusable according to Prof. Cowden's explanation. But most states recognize rape as a crime that does serious damage to the victim & as such the use of force, including deadly force to stop such an attack is justifiable.
& his example of 'proportion' is not entirely accurate. If someone attempts to stab you, you are not restrained to only stabbing them back. The proportion test is usually negated when there is a serious threat to life or limb. So a snowball wouldn't necessarily constitute a threat to life & limb & shooting would be a disproportionate response. However a person threatening you with a thick stick is a danger to life & limb & the use of a firearm in defense from a person weilding a stick or some other such weapon would be justifiable despite it being a disproportionate reaction.
Also most states allow for the use of deadly force to protect someone else's life, not just your own.
So perhaps Prof. Cowden's remarks were condensed by the reporter or perhaps he was in a rush & didn't see the necissity of explaing in more detail. But from my understanding of SC law his statements were a bit misleading.

& while legally a prosecutor could make the claim that Mr. Gates escalated the situation, practically speaking he de-escalated it. After he shot the two men left standing, there was no more violence was there?

"North Charleston defense attorney Michael O'Neal said Gates might have pushed the boundaries of self-defense laws, but did not go over them, by shooting at the men in his front yard. He said people, when confronted by physical threats, are required by law to retreat whenever possible -- everywhere except on their own property.
'A man's house is his castle, that's what it essentially boils down to,' O'Neal said. 'The men weren't exactly attacking him, but they were exhibiting violence on his property.'

For the record North Charleston is a seperate city located (obviously) just north of Charleston, S.C.

"Charleston defense attorney Mike Coleman agreed that the Gates case will come down to whether he was actually in imminent danger of being hurt.
'Each case depends on the actual facts and the individual variables that go along with that case," he said. 'If you have a drug dealer in your front yard and you've called the police and they haven't done anything, that still doesn't give you the right to use deadly force. If he's trying to hurt you, that's a different story'. "

This is not necessarily true. A very strong case could be made that the people shooting in Mr. Gates' front yard presented a clear & immediate danger to the community. A stray bullet could have injured or killed a person within several blocks if not miles. Usually when you take an action to stop someone that presents a danger to someone else that falls under the category of 'defense of self & community'.
For example if you see a truck driving very fast towards a building & you are somehow magically aware that the truck contains a bomb & the object of the driver is to blow up the building, then by taking action to stop the truck you would be justified even if the truck &/or bomb did not present an immediate danger to you personally.

Less common but worth mentioning are various 'citizen arrest' laws in some states. These sometimes provide for the use of deadly force to stop a person who you have witnessed commiting a serious crime & is attempting to flee. The idea is that even though the fleeing criminal does not present a danger to you personally at that moment, his escape will allow him to (based on his actions) be a danger to others. This of course would only apply to the more serious offense such as murder & rape. & this is only applicable in certain states which my memory does not serve me well enough to mention.

So there are other justifiable uses of deadly force that are not based solely on imminent personal danger.

"Regardless, Gates is a hero to many people. Dwight Arrington, a Columbia resident whose daughter is a student at Medical University of South Carolina, said he would help establish a legal-defense fund for Gates if he is charged in the shooting.
'I'm just glad the guy had the backbone to do what he did,' Arrington said. 'I was thinking to myself when I read about it, Good for him, I would have done the same thing'. "

If they do charge him I'll try to track down the contact info for the legal defense fund.

Another thing - the reporter mentions the fact that the police have totally disarmed Mr. Gates, but yet is very specific as to where Mr. Gates' lives. I wonder how the reporter in question would feel if the government took away all his arms after he had shot some alledged drug dealers & then found his location was printed in an article about him?

But aside from a few exceptions the reporter did a fairly unbiased article, if it was somewhat incomplete. I would have preferred a more in depth treatment of SC's self defense laws, perhaps printing the relevant sections of law rather than merely relying on the commentary of lawyers.
Also I would have liked to have seen some kind of explanation as to why Mr. Gates' was completely & totally disarmed by the Charleston P.D. , especially considering thier Chief was urging merchants to be armed some months ago & feels that Mr. Gates acted in self defense.
But I guess that's why there are blogs.

Steve Reeves can be contacted at or 843-745-5856.

I'd urge any & everyone to e-mail or call Mr. Reeves & inquire about the legal defense fund as well as asking him for any details on when Mr. Gates' arms will be returned.

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