South Dakota Supreme Court: ‘Stand your ground’ law not retroactive
Minnesota native had argued for the right to a self-defense immunity hearing
South Dakota Supreme Court Justice Janine Kern gestures as she participates in oral arguments with other justices on March 23, 2023, in Brookings. (David Bordewyk/South Dakota Newspaper Association)
Less than 24 hours into his first visit to Sioux Falls, Minnesota native Ramon Deron Smith shot and killed Larry Carr Jr. and wounded two others.
A little over two years later, a state law took effect that lets those charged with a crime of violence make a self-defense claim before a trial – and avoid one altogether if a judge rules in their favor.
Smith maintained all through his 2022 trial that he’d only fired in self-defense. The jury nonetheless convicted Smith of second-degree murder and three counts of aggravated assault. He’s now serving a life sentence in a Sioux Falls prison.
Shortly after that conviction, Smith appealed to the South Dakota Supreme Court, hoping to reverse his conviction on the grounds that he’d been denied a self-defense hearing, and that prosecutors unfairly allowed testimony about his status as a felon with a firearm.
Circuit Court Judge Bradley Zell ruled that Smith didn’t have the right to an immunity hearing for the 2019 crime, and that the disclosure of his status as a felon barred from firearm possession wasn’t enough to declare a mistrial.
This week, the state’s high court issued a ruling that could keep Smith behind bars for the rest of his life, unless he files a successful appeal or receives a pardon or commutation.
The justices ruled that the “stand your ground” law did not apply in his case, because the shootings occurred before its passage. They also ruled that the mention of his status as a felon – he’d only recently been released from prison in Minnesota when the shooting occurred – did not unfairly prejudice the jury.
Lawyers for both sides had agreed not to reference his felon status at trial, but a Sioux Falls police detective mentioned it from the witness stand.
That wasn’t enough to meet the threshold for overturning a conviction, the justices decided. Smith was able to present his self-defense claim, and jurors were instructed not to consider his revoked right to possess firearms when evaluating the veracity of his self-defense claim.
That the self-defense claim failed to sway the jury was more a measure of the weakness of the claim than any disclosure about his gun rights, the court ruled.
On the day of the murder, Smith grabbed a handgun and left an apartment to confront a group of people who’d been making threats on social media.
“The fact that Smith was prohibited from possessing a firearm because of his status as a felon, but chose to arm himself before leaving the apartment, was at best tangential to the question of whether Smith acted reasonably for the purpose of self-defense,” the decision says.
As to the question of the state’s “stand your ground” law, the justices said the law was not written to apply retroactively. As such, Smith was not entitled to the kind of immunity hearing now being used in South Dakota courtrooms by people with self-defense claims.
“In view of this Court’s determination that the statute did not apply retroactively, no question remains whether the circuit court erred in denying Smith’s request for a hearing,” the justices wrote.
The ruling was unanimous, and authored by Chief Justice Steven Jensen.
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