'Till Death Do Us Part'


More than 300 women were shot, stabbed, strangled, beaten, bludgeoned or burned to death over the past decade by men in South Carolina, dying at a rate of one every 12 days while the state does little to stem the carnage from domestic abuse.

More than three times as many South Carolina women have died at the hands of current or former lovers than the number of Palmetto State soldiers killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined.

It's a staggering toll that for more than 15 years has placed South Carolina among the top 10 states nationally in the rate of women killed by men. The state topped the list on three occasions, including this past year, when it posted a murder rate for women that was more than double the national rate.

Awash in guns, saddled with ineffective laws and lacking enough shelters for the battered, South Carolina is a state where the deck is stacked against women trapped in the cycle of abuse.

Couple this with deep-rooted beliefs about the sanctity of marriage and the place of women in the home, and the vows “till death do us part” take on a sinister tone.

An investigation by the Charleston Post and Courier found that the beat of killings has remained a constant in South Carolina, even as domestic violence rates have tumbled 64 percent nationwide over the past two decades, according to an analysis of crime statistics by the newspaper.

The seven-part multimedia series by Post and Courier reporter Glenn Smith was produced as part of a John Jay/Harry Frank Guggenheim criminal justice reporting fellowship. Smith was a 2013 reporting fellow. The first part of his series was published earlier this month. This is an abridged version. To read the full version and the entire series, please see the link below.

Interviews with more than 100 victims, counselors, police, prosecutors and judges reveal an ingrained, multi-generational problem in South Carolina, where abusive behavior is passed down from parents to their children. Yet the problem essentially remains a silent epidemic, a private matter that is seldom discussed outside the home until someone is seriously hurt.

“We have the notion that what goes on between a couple is just between the couple and is none of our business,” said 9th Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson, chief prosecutor for Charleston and Berkeley counties.

“Where that analysis goes wrong is we have to remember that couple is training their little boy that this is how he treats women and training their little girl that this is what she should expect from her man. The cycle is just perpetual.”

A lack of action

South Carolina is hardly alone in dealing with domestic violence. Nationwide, an average of three women are killed by a current or former lover every day. Other states are moving forward with reform measures, but South Carolina has largely remained idle while its domestic murder rate consistently ranks among the nation's worst.

Though state officials have long lamented the high death toll for women, lawmakers have put little money into prevention programs and have resisted efforts to toughen penalties for abusers. This past year alone, a dozen measures to combat domestic violence died in the Legislature.

The state's largest metro areas of Greenville, Columbia and Charleston lead the death tally in sheer numbers. But rural pockets, such as Marlboro, Allendale and Greenwood counties, hold more danger because the odds are higher there that a woman will die from domestic violence. These are places where resources for victims of abuse are thin, a predicament the state has done little to address.

All 46 counties have at least one animal shelter to care for stray dogs and cats, but the state has only 18 domestic violence shelters to help women trying to escape abuse in the home. Experts say that just isn't enough in a state that records around 36,000 incidents of domestic abuse every year.

More than 380 victims were turned away from shelters around the state between 2012 and 2013 because they had no room, according to the state Department of Social Services.

Oconee County, in South Carolina's rural northwest corner, realized it had a problem last year after six people died over six months in domestic killings. The sheriff pushed for the county to open a shelter after 58-year-old Gwendolyn Hiott was shot dead while trying to leave her husband, who then killed himself.

She had nowhere to go, but the couple's 24 cats and dogs were taken to the local animal shelter to be fed and housed while waiting for adoption.

When asked, most state legislators profess deep concern over domestic violence. Yet they maintain a legal system in which a man can earn five years in prison for abusing his dog but a maximum of just 30 days in jail for beating his wife or girlfriend on a first offense.

Many states have harsher penalties. Mississippi, Ohio and Tennessee, for example, set the maximum jail stay for the same crime at six months. In Georgia and Alabama it is a year.

This extra time behind bars not only serves as a deterrent but also can save lives, according to counselors, prosecutors and academics. Studies have shown that the risk of being killed by an angry lover declines three months after separation and drops sharply after a year's time.

The Post and Courier investigation also found:

  • Police and court resources vary wildly across the state. Larger cities, such as Charleston, generally have dedicated police units and special courts to deal with domestic violence. Most small towns do not, making it difficult to track abusers, catch signs of escalating violence and make services readily available to both victims and abusers.
  • Accused killers are funneled into a state court system that struggles with overloaded dockets and depends on plea deals to push cases through. Of those convicted of domestic homicides since 2005, nearly half pleaded guilty to lesser charges that carry lighter sentences.
  • Guns were the weapon of choice in nearly seven out of every 10 domestic killings of women over the past decade, but South Carolina lawmakers have blocked efforts to keep firearms out of the hands of abusers. Unlike South Carolina, more than two-thirds of all states bar batterers facing restraining orders from having firearms, and about half of those allow or require police to seize guns when they respond to domestic violence complaints.
  • Abusers get out of jail quickly because of low bail requirements. Some states, including Maryland and Connecticut, screen domestic cases to determine which offenders pose the most danger to their victims. South Carolina doesn't do this.
  • Domestic abusers often are diverted to anger-management programs rather than jail even though many experts agree that they don't work. In Charleston, authorities hauled one young man into court in March after he failed to complete his anger-management program. His excuse: He had missed his appointments because he had been jailed again for breaking into his girlfriend's home and beating her.
  • Victims are encouraged to seek orders of protection, but the orders lack teeth, and the state has no central means to alert police that an order exists. Take the case of 46-year-old Robert Irby, who still had the restraining order paperwork in his hand the day he confessed to stalking and killing his ex-girlfriend in Greer in 2010. He gunned her down outside her home the day after he learned about the order.
  • The vast majority of states have fatality-review teams in place that study domestic killings for patterns and lessons that can be used to prevent future violence. South Carolina is one of only nine states without such a team.

To produce this series, The Post and Courier reviewed dozens of reports and studies, examined efforts underway in other states, and interviewed more than 100 police officers, lawyers, judges, victims, counselors, victim advocates, politicians, and clergy.

This endeavor produced a number of concrete proposals aimed at curbing the bloodshed.

This is an abridged version of the first article of a seven-part series produced by Post and Courier reporter Glenn Smith, a 2014 John Jay/Harry Frank Guggenheim Reporting Fellow. To see the full series and multimedia components, please click here. Readers comments are welcome.

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