Did frustrations from a Midlands high school rivalry game drive a young man to kill, or did he act in self-defense? A jury debated the question in 2016 but couldn’t reach a verdict.
The high-profile case was revisited Tuesday morning as attorneys presented opening statements to a new jury in the long-awaited murder trial of a 24-year-old Lexington man.
Kierin Dennis, a Lexington High School graduate who was 18 at the time, stands accused of murdering 17-year-old Dutch Fork High School senior Da’Von Capers in 2014. If found guilty, Dennis faces a minimum of 30 years in prison.
There is no doubt that Dennis stabbed Capers in the parking lot of a Lexington Cook Out restaurant. The question is, were his actions justified and legal?
Over the next week, prosecutors and defense attorneys will present competing narratives of what happened that night, hoping to convince jurors of Dennis’ emotions and intentions. Prosecutors have said Dennis was looking for trouble, while defense attorneys have argued that he was trying to leave when he was forced to defend himself.
The trial will be the latest test of South Carolina’s “stand your ground” law, one of at least two dozen such laws around the country that allow armed citizens to defend themselves against a perceived threat, regardless of whether retreating may have been possible.
Those laws have been criticized for promoting a “shoot first” mentality and empowering untrained citizens to kill with little accountability. According to the Leadership Conference on Civil & Human Rights, the laws have “disproportionately harmful results for people of color.”
Jurors in the first trial heard from 30 witnesses and viewed numerous videos. After a seven-day trial and 10 hours of deliberation, jurors announced they were “hopelessly deadlocked.”
Now, 34 months later, Dennis’ motives are again put to the test.
‘We’ve got something for you’
It all started after a heated rivalry basketball game between Dutch Fork High School and Lexington High School on Feb. 17, 2014.
“It was an exciting game, a riveting game, an intense game, and that’s the way it should be because high school rivalry games have existed for hundreds of years,” said 11th Circuit Assistant Solicitor Rhonda Patterson. “It should be fun. It should be exciting. It should be intense. But one thing it should never be is deadly.”
Patterson spent less than 10 minutes laying out the state’s case against Dennis, who is black, to a jury of nine men and five women. Only one member of the jury is black.
Not only did Dutch Fork win that night on Lexington’s home court, but the team also beat Lexington High two weeks earlier. Dennis, who had just graduated from Lexington High, couldn’t let it go, Patterson said.
“He couldn’t be run off from his home town. He couldn’t be disrespected. He couldn’t be embarrassed,” Patterson said.
Witnesses will testify that they encountered Dennis and his friends in the school parking lot after the game, Patterson said. She said some will testify they heard Dennis say: “Meet us at the Cook Out. We’ve got something for you.”
“And boy did he have something for them. He made good on his word,” Patterson said. “He had a plan with his buddies to start trouble and it didn’t stop until trouble was had.
“Kierin Dennis let the intensity of a rivalry high school game fuel his hostility, his ill will and his hatred toward students of a rivalry school,” she said.
‘How close is too close?’
But the defense, led by attorneys Nicole Simpson and Todd Rutherford, spent more than 20 minutes describing an entirely different story.
Simpson scolded the state’s theory of the case and told jurors that investigators rushed to judgment. Trash talking, insults and celebration are all part of a rivalry, Simpson said.
“But what we don’t have here is a rivalry that caused so much ill will and hostility that Kierin Dennis would plot, premeditate to kill Capers. A high school basketball game. It’s a game, remember that,” she said. “And for the state to try and place the purpose, the reason, the motive for this murder on a game is demeaning to the value of human life. Not only the life of Da’Von Capers, but also that of Kierin Dennis.”
After the game, everyone went to Cook Out because that was the new hangout in town, Simpson said. It had just been built.
And the students from Dutch Fork, coming off a big victory, stayed in Lexington in massive numbers. Many of them were already at Cook Out when Dennis and his friends arrived. Video from inside the restaurant shows Capers walking past Dennis at least five times, Simpson said. No words were exchanged at all.
But as time went by, people started hurling insults and profanities, taunting one another. At least 30 or 40 students from Dutch Fork had filled the restaurant. That’s when Dennis made the decision it was time to leave, Simpson said.
“Something is about to go down,” she said.
Dennis climbed into his car and kids immediately swarmed around him, continuing with the insults and throwing trash, drinks and trays. Dennis ordered them to stay off his car and back away, Simpson said.
Simpson then asked jurors, “How close is too close?”
“How close should a person that you don’t know, never met before, no prior history, be allowed to get to your window in your car in a threatening and aggressive manner?”
Capers ran up on Dennis’s car and leaned into the window, Simpson said, and that’s when Dennis stabbed him with a knife he uses for fishing.
“He enjoys fishing,” Simpson said. “He’s country. His car is decked out in camo. That’s what he does.”
She then asked jurors to put themselves in Dennis’ shoes as he was outnumbered and surrounded.
“Are they going to pull me out of the car? Curb stomp me?” Simpson said, acting as though she were Dennis in that situation. “What am I going to do? If I press the gas, I’m going to run over and hurt a lot of people.”
And when Capers leaned in, Dennis jabbed him once in the chest with the knife.
“He just wanted him to get away,” Simpson said. “He had every right, and quite frankly, no other choice to do what he did.”
Testimony will continue Tuesday, and the trial is scheduled to last a week.
Staff writer John Monk contributed to this report.