Mutual-combat murder doctrine, argued by Solicitor Stone, now recognized state law
BEAUFORT, SC (February 7, 2020) – A rarely cited doctrine used by the 14th Circuit Solicitor to convict three defendants in the 2012 shooting death of an 8-year-old on Hilton Head Island is now recognized as state law.
In a 3-1 decision Feb. 5, the S.C. Supreme Court denied the appeal of Aaron Young Jr. He was one of three people convicted of murdering Khalil Singleton, who was caught in the crossfire of a running gun battle while playing in his grandmother’s front yard.
Tyrone Robinson fired the fatal bullet. Stone also earned convictions against the men he was shooting at, Young Jr. and his father, Aaron Young Sr., by invoking a centuries-old legal concept. “Mutual combat” holds that each participant in a shootout is responsible for each bullet fired, regardless of whether the accused fought with or against the killer-combatant.
Additionally, Stone argued in the Youngs’ trials that the doctrine applied even if the victim was a non-combatant.
“Tyrone Robinson fired the fatal shot, but each one of these people was responsible for Khalil Singleton’s death,” Stone said. “After months of research into applicable case law, one of our assistant solicitors, Hunter Swanson, came across a court decision from 1918 that provided the legal foundation for the murder charges against the Youngs.
“The mutual combat doctrine might have been largely forgotten, but there was precedent to support it. This law would ensure no one who participated in bringing on this tragedy would escape accountability.”
All three combatants were armed and fired at each other at various locations on Hilton Head Island during a running gun battle. The conflict started when Robinson drove to the Youngs’ home and fired a .38-caliber handgun during a struggle with Young Sr.
Robinson returned to his vehicle and sped away. The Youngs went into their house, retrieved a semi-automatic pistol and ammunition, then got into their pickup truck to begin searching for Robinson. They caught up with him near his home. When gunfire erupted, neighbors called their children indoors, but Singleton, staying with his grandmother that day, was struck before he made it inside.
Robinson and the Youngs were convicted of Singleton’s murder in separate trials in 2014 and 2015 – the end of a three-year process that involved more than 150 pieces of evidence and hundreds of man hours.
Mutual combat has its roots in English common law and has existed in South Carolina law since at least 1843. However, it is not believed to have been cited since a 1915 case involving a labor dispute at a Greenville textile mill, until Stone revived it. The doctrine holds that when participants enter a fight in which they know deadly weapons will be used, everyone engaged is equally responsible for any death that ensues. The doctrine applies regardless of the side on which the combatant fought and regardless of whether the combatant used a deadly weapon himself.
In his appeal, Young Jr. asserted that mutual combat is only a limitation on a self-defense argument and that the law would not apply because Singleton was not a combatant. The court rejected both arguments.
“When two or more individuals engage in combat via a reckless shootout, they collectively trigger an escalating chain reaction that creates a high risk to any human life falling within the field of fire,” Justice John W. Kitteredge wrote in the court’s majority opinion. “In that type of gunfight, all individuals are willing to use lethal force and display a depraved indifference to human life. More importantly, an innocent bystander would not be shot but for the willingness of all combatants to turn an otherwise peaceful environment, often a residential or commercial setting, into a battlefield.”