14th Circuit makes changes to tackle domestic violence cases

rlurye@islandpacket.comSeptember 29, 2013 

Duffie Stone

In the past, victims of domestic violence were sometimes pressured by those who abused them to fill out a drop slip, a form that, as the name implies, dropped all charges.

Such forms quietly disappeared from the 14th Circuit Solicitor's Office this month, and prosecutors hope their absence -- and other recent changes -- will strike a blow against those who commit domestic violence.

The slips made it all the more challenging to prosecute cases that were already difficult, Solicitor Duffie Stone said last week. The elimination of the slips gives the defendant one less bit of leverage against an already traumatized victim, Stone said.

With the drop slips gone, the decision to pursue domestic violence cases is back in the hands of prosecutors, he said.

There have been other changes as well.

Stone created a Crimes Against Women team earlier this month, composed of a victim advocate -- Wanda Morgan -- and a single prosecutor -- Price Sumner -- who will handle all domestic violence cases in the circuit.

The team will also help create a more coordinated response, working closely with the Beaufort County Sheriff's Office and involving Citizens Opposed to Domestic Abuse in staffing each case.

The Bluffton Police Department also takes reports of violence seriously, said Capt. Angela McCall-Tanner, spokeswoman for the department. One officer is assigned to victim's advocacy, helping address victims' other needs, such as securing counseling and a safe place to live, she said.

That type of response can mean the difference between victims reporting a crime or letting violence slide for fear they'll be met with blame, said CODA executive director Kristin Dubrowski.

Stone also helped usher in a change in state law in 2006, the year he became solicitor, to allow his five-county circuit to prosecute first offense domestic violence cases. Previously, those misdemeanors were handled in magistrate's court, alongside parking fines and speeding tickets.

The most recent changes come at a particularly grim time: South Carolina was recently ranked as the worst state in the nation in terms of men killing women.

The state has a rate of 2.54 females murdered per 100,000 women, more than double the national average, according to a report released Tuesday by the Violence Policy Center in Washington, D.C.. The ranking, based on 2011 crime data, said 61 South Carolina women were murdered by men.

The Lowcountry is not immune to such incidents, Dubrowski said.

In 2011, the county ranked 27th in the state for the rate of domestic violence victims per capita, according to a report that pulled data from the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division. Jasper County ranked 39th.

Domestic violence isn't treated as a serious issue in much of the state, Dubrowski said.

"It's really accepted in our culture here. If it wasn't, we wouldn't be number one," she said.

Two states, Florida and Alabama, did not report numbers to the FBI Supplementary Homicide Report, which the Violence Policy Center used to craft its ranking. Beaufort County Sheriff P.J. Tanner said that makes him question the report, adding that the county had only one case of a woman killed by a man in 2011.

"I'd kind of like to know where the other 60 cases are," he said.

But Tanner said even one murder is unacceptable and the county has far more domestic violence cases than it should.

"We don't want to be number one in the country," he said. "Are we accepting of domestic violence in Beaufort County? No. Is it something we accept as a way of life in Beaufort County? Absolutely not."

Stone said he doesn't need statistics to tell him things needed to change.

"This is something we've been taking seriously since I've been the solicitor," he said. "The first few murder cases I prosecuted were domestic violence. I see that all too often."

Tanner agreed.

"We have to move these (cases) forward," he said. "We understand why victims change their minds, but them changing their mind is not helping us cure the problem."

Follow reporter Rebecca Lurye on Twitter at twitter.com/IPBG_Rebecca.

Related stories:

SC worst in nation for violence against women September 25, 2013

Look to new approach to domestic violence July 17, 2012

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