Court statistics show the grim reality of sexual assault prosecution in Beaufort County: Since 2010, there has been only one conviction on any sexual assault charge with an adult victim in this area of more than 180,000 residents.
In that period, there were 56 adult sexual assault cases closed in the county. More than half were dismissed completely. Four resulted in acquittals at trial; and all but one of the rest, 22 cases, ended in guilty pleas to non-sexual charges, mostly misdemeanors, according to S.C. Court Administration data.
All 56 defendants were men, court records show.
Fourteenth Circuit solicitor Duffie Stone says these cases routinely lack enough evidence to take to trial.
“When you sit down with a victim and tell them — ‘Look, I believe you, but we don’t have enough evidence to go forward’— it’s not something anybody wants to do,” Stone said. “But if you don’t have any evidence, you don’t have any choice.”
Stone also argues that the county’s statistics are no worse than statewide conviction rates. State court data shows that in both Beaufort County and in South Carolina overall, 32 percent of those cases end in a conviction of some kind, including plea deals to lower, non-sexual charges.
Still, advocates urge prosecutors to make these cases more of a priority and pursue convictions, even when the outcome at trial is uncertain.
“The prosecutors live and die by evidence, but I do feel that prosecuting these cases sends a message beyond just the wins and the losses,” said Shauw Chin-Capps, executive director of Hopeful Horizons, a rape crisis center serving Beaufort, Jasper, Allendale and Colleton counties. “There’s also something to be said about practice makes perfect. The more you prosecute these cases, the better you’re going to get.
“It sends a message to our community that we take these cases seriously.”
The data behind the county’s adult sexual assault cases also shows:
▪ Of the 22 cases with a guilty plea, eight defendants were sentenced to jail time, while 14 were put only on probation as part of the deal. In some of those cases, Stone points out, offenders violated probation and did eventually get jail time.
▪ Since 2010, the median time between an adult sexual assault case being filed and its conclusion was 256 days. Some cases took years, including an instance of a seven-year gap between charges being filed and a guilty plea, court records show.
▪ Repeat offenders are common. A total of 13 defendants charged with sexual assault of an adult over the last 10 years have at least two sexual misconduct charges in Beaufort County.
▪ While there’s been just one conviction on this charge, 486 adult victims of sexual assault sought treatment at Hopeful Horizons rape crisis center since 2010, Chin-Capps said. And from 2010 to 2014, county law enforcement investigated 234 reports of adult rape in the county, according to FBI statistics.
“These charges are just the tip of the iceberg,” said Chin-Capps. “Many sexual assaults never even get to the point of an investigation, let alone charges or a conviction.”
Lack of evidence
So why do so many of those cases never go to trial?
Stone gave several explanations:
▪ First, in many cases, victims do not report the crime until several days or even weeks after an assault. Yet rape kits must be performed within 72 hours.
▪ When there is a rape kit, there might not be DNA found that is usable in a trial, even if an assault occurred.
▪ Even when there is clear DNA evidence, prosecutors must convince jurors that there was no consent, which is difficult to prove especially when the victim and defendant know each other — which is estimated to be the case in about 86 percent of rapes, one study showed.
The issue of consent is reflected locally in the disparity between convictions in adult and child sexual assault cases, Stone said.
Since 2010, there have been at least nine convictions on charges of criminal sexual conduct with a minor in the county, compared to the single conviction in adult cases.
The reason, according to Stone: In sexual assaults involving a minor, there can be no consent under the law.
Still, five adult sexual assault cases have gone to trial in Beaufort County since 2010.
The single conviction was a 2012 home invasion case in which a Port Royal man, Frederick Mcleod, forced his way into a neighbor’s apartment and sexually assaulted her. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison.
Four cases ended in acquittal.
“We interview jurors after sexual assault cases and ask them, ‘What did you need?’ ” Stone said. “What were the cases missing? And routinely the answer is: physical evidence.”
About 40 percent of Beaufort County’s adult sexual assault cases since 2010 ended in a plea deal, court data show.
No one pleaded guilty to sexual charges. Instead, defendants typically pleaded guilty to non-sexual assault charges.
Stone said he considers plea deals to be a risk assessment in those cases.
“You are unfortunately left in many situations with a dilemma,” he said. “Do I get something and make sure this guy — or in some cases a woman — is held accountable? Or do we just let them go free in one of two ways? We can dismiss the case, or we can try it and lose it.”
The Solicitor’s Office adopts the philosophy of convicting defendants on charges it can prove, Stone said.
“How’d you get Al Capone? Any way you could,” he said. “Do you think they were cracking down on tax evasion? No, this is what we can get them on.”
To rape victims such as Daryan Payne, though, a plea deal to lower charges doesn’t feel like justice.
Payne, 19, of Beaufort, reported she was sexually assaulted by her father’s 35-year-old friend in December. She told prosecutors she would not approve of any plea deal in her case.
“If you plead it down, it feels to me like you’re not wanting to do your job,” Payne said. “It’s not right if someone rapes somebody and they get a slap on the wrist.”
Stone said his office always consults victims before offering a plea deal, though they don’t always approve of the decision.
“Very rarely is the victim overly happy with that outcome,” he said. “But it’s also rare that the victim doesn’t understand why we did it.”
What can be done?
Stone believes that his prosecutors’ hands are tied when it comes to getting more convictions in adult sexual assault cases.
“I think if you look at those statistics and you say, ‘OK, wow, there are not very many convictions.’ No, there are not. But that’s true anywhere,” he said. “So I wouldn’t look at those convictions and think I need to go to my guys and say, ‘What are you doing wrong?’ ”
But advocates do have recommendations they say may help.
Other solicitors in South Carolina, including in Charleston, have designated prosecutors who focus only on sexual assault cases, said Laura Hudson, executive director of the South Carolina Crime Victims’ Council.
That specialization can give prosecutors more expertise to effectively prosecute these cases over time, she said.
But Stone argues that specialized prosecution is limiting.
“The problem is that you get so focused on a particular crime, that you’re not looking at the defendant,” he said, contending arguing that it can hinder a prosecutor’s ability to get a conviction on other charges.
Other advocates say the solution involves educating residents who eventually will serve on juries.
People often expect rape to be stranger attacks with lots of physical evidence. The reality is that most victims know their attacker and may not have physical injuries, said Sara Barber, executive director of the South Carolina Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault.
“When that attitude permeates this society, it makes it very difficult for our systems to make people accountable,” she said. “And when you consider a rape victim and everything they’ve been through, entering a court system can really retraumatize them.”
The low conviction rates are a cycle, said Chin-Capps of Hopeful Horizons. Victims who see cases getting dropped are less likely to report their own, she said.
“Can you blame them?” she asked.
Chin-Capps said counselors at Hopeful Horizons try to keep victims from fixating on the outcome of their case.
“We try to help our clients not allow what happens in the justice system to dictate their healing, because very few cases are successful,” she said. “It’s just the reality.”