A track coach is accused of sexually assaulting one of his athletes while attending a meet on Hilton Head Island. The defendant says he will plead guilty if he gets probation and doesn’t have to register as a sex offender.
Fourteenth Circuit Solicitor’s Office prosecutors reject the offer.
We have drug-store surveillance video of the defendant purchasing the morning-after pill on the night of the alleged attack. We also have a voicemail he left for the victim’s father: “I did not rape your daughter. I didn’t know she was 15.” The age of consent in South Carolina is 16.
When the “not guilty” verdict is announced, the victim collapses in a sobbing heap in the gallery just behind me. Her father has to carry her from the courthouse.
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To a prosecutor, this girl and victims like her are more than tick marks in a win-loss column. We witness the anguish of women who summon the courage to relive their horror in front of strangers, only to be disbelieved. We are kept up at night, considering what we can do differently to spare the next victim such pain.
So understand why I take vehement offense to a recent opinion piece by Liz Farrell regarding our criminal sexual conduct prosecutions.
Don’t misunderstand. We’re public servants, and scrutiny of our performance comes with the territory. However, The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette columnist went one further to assail the commitment and effort of people she knows nothing about.
Farrell is utterly unqualified to take such a leap.
She has never covered our office as part of a beat. In fact, if she has covered a criminal proceeding of any sort in Beaufort County, there’s no evidence of it on the Packet’s website. Neither did she bother to call or make the 1.5-mile drive from her office to ours to speak with any of the prosecutors she slammed with such impunity.
Instead, Farrell pretended to know us by her colleague’s tick marks.
Two days before Farrell’s column, the Packet and Gazette published a package of news stories, which teased several statistics from the reporting, including this one: Since 2010, there has been just one conviction for criminal sexual conduct in a Beaufort County case involving an adult victim.
The number is accurate, but it is woefully incomplete.
The trial I described at the outset is a case in point. The newspaper could have used it to study our thought process in plea agreements, or to examine the challenges we face when there’s no DNA evidence to corroborate a victim’s testimony.
Apparently, that didn’t fit the narrative.
Excluded from the statistics were all cases in which the defendant was accused of raping a child.
You read that right. Child rape victims didn’t count.
The reporting also omitted cases from the other four counties in the Fourteenth Circuit, including Jasper County, which is in the newspaper’s coverage area.
Also tossed were Beaufort County convictions from 2009, the year the Solicitor’s Office formed its Career Criminal Unit to match the most serious cases with our most experienced prosecutors.
Include all of these cases the newspaper ignored, and the number of CSC convictions we have secured is not one. It is 94.
That didn’t stop Farrell from wielding the cherry-picked number like a hatchet. We get it — “94” doesn’t make the point as emphatically as “one.” Nonetheless, if you’re intent upon denigrating an entire staff, it’s only fair to consider its entire body of work.
Farrell compounds the error with assertions that no statistics support. For instance, she accuses us of being reluctant to take rape cases to a jury. To the contrary, during the span the news stories covered, Beaufort County CSC charges involving adult victims were tried at a rate nearly three times higher than CSC cases elsewhere in the state, and more than 10 times higher than all crimes statewide.
Similarly, she implies we’re too quick to make plea deals in rape cases, but in actuality, we do so at a rate 10 percent lower than our state counterparts.
Finally, I want it to be clear that Solicitor Duffie Stone does not run some sort of misogynistic, “old boy” shop. Sixteen of the office’s 26 prosecutors, and five of six on the Career Criminal Unit, are women.
Our solicitor routinely reminds his prosecutors, victim advocates and support staff that we must “do what is right, for the right reason.” What’s more, he was forcefully combating violence against South Carolina’s women long before Farrell suggested it.
Shortly after Solicitor Stone took office in 2006, we assumed prosecution of misdemeanor-level domestic violence cases in unincorporated Beaufort County. We certainly didn’t do it to make our numbers look good — as with CSC cases, domestic violence charges are tough for anyone to win. But before we intervened, these cases were often prosecuted by law-enforcement officers pitted against seasoned defense attorneys.
Treating domestic violence charges like a traffic ticket wasn’t right, and Solicitor Stone did something about it.
As she did with other facts that countervailed her argument, Farrell skipped right past this. To borrow from her language, mediocre columnists give their opinions; great ones back them up with more than supposition.
Farrell should decide which type she wants to be.
Mary Jordan Lempesis is first assistant solicitor in the 14th Circuit Solicitor’s Office. Eleven prosecutors from its Beaufort County office also signed this piece.