A young woman cowers in the passenger seat of a banged-up Cadillac, blood oozing from scratches carved in her face.
She weeps as a North Charleston police officer escorts her boyfriend in handcuffs from a nearby bungalow. Barefoot, with jeans sagging off his slender frame, the boyfriend glowers when asked how his girlfriend was injured.
“We fighting,” he answers with a shrug.
Police charge the boyfriend with criminal domestic violence, but he doesn’t spend long behind bars. He posts bail within hours and is released. Then, the charge goes away entirely after his girlfriend has second thoughts about testifying.
It’s a familiar tale across South Carolina. Cases against domestic abusers fall apart on a regular basis, allowing them to escape punishment and continue to mistreat the women in their lives — at times, with deadly results. Examples are easy to find.
Nathaniel Beeks, a 47-year-old Greenville County man, was arrested seven times for criminal domestic violence before he strangled his girlfriend to death in April 2011. Derrick Anderson, 34, of Greenwood, had six arrests for domestic violence and eight more for assault before he throttled the life from his ex-girlfriend in 2007.
A number of factors contribute to this problem, from overcrowded court dockets and under-trained police to victims too scared to testify against the men who beat them. Couple these issues with a domestic violence law that treats first-time offenders about the same as shoplifters and litterbugs, and it’s easy to see why abusers go free time and again.
After a 2001 study revealed that more than half of South Carolina’s most serious domestic violence cases never went to trial, then-Attorney General Charlie Condon ordered prosecutors across the state to pursue convictions even when victims refused to cooperate. That policy has continued under each of Condon’s two successors. They’ve also sent in outside attorneys to help prosecute domestic violence in struggling counties with few resources.
Yet 13 years later, state court statistics show similar results: Since July 2012, more than 40 percent of the 8,884 domestic violence cases handled in General Sessions courts were dismissed for one reason or another, according to a Post and Courier analysis.
The state doesn’t track the outcome of charges in magistrate and municipal courts, though they handle the lion’s share of domestic violence cases. One state commission sampling found that more than half of the 5,329 domestic violence cases that landed in magistrate courts between July 2012 and June 2013 were ultimately dismissed.
A Post and Courier analysis of local court data found similar patterns. About six in 10 domestic violence cases that ended up in Charleston and North Charleston municipal courts between 2009 and 2013 were dismissed or dropped by prosecutors. In suburban Mount Pleasant, the figure was around 38 percent.
Prosecutors say a percentage of these cases were thrown out — about 9 percent in Charleston, for example — when the abuser successfully completed a court-ordered counseling program for batterers. The numbers also don’t reflect when a suspect agreed to plead guilty to a charge other than domestic violence, such as simple assault.
But prosecutors acknowledge that a sizable number of cases simply go away for lack of evidence or because the victims back out of testifying.
“Our biggest issue is the lack of cooperation from victims,” 9th Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson said.
Though frustrating, she understands that reticence, as do the police investigating these cases. North Charleston Detective Chris Ross, a 36-year veteran, said battered women often return to their abusers and seek to have charges dropped, either out of love, necessity or fear.
“A lot of them are terrified,” he said. “They are afraid they will face additional retribution, which is a legitimate concern.”
Charleston County Magistrate Brian Rawl said the horror of the whole situation is that these women often have been brutalized for years. Studies show that victims often are assaulted seven times or more before reporting. Some never do.
The 29-year veteran judge recalled the case of an 84-year-old woman who accused her husband of beating her. Rawl asked the woman how long she’d been abused. She replied “our entire 60-year marriage. I have bone cancer now and I can’t have him beat on me.”
S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson pushes prosecutors to move forward with domestic abuse cases even when victims feel too embarrassed or afraid to cooperate. He tells victims: “This is not your cross to bear. This is my burden. ... He has committed a crime against the state.”
Still, it’s an uphill climb.
A “victim-less” prosecution can succeed if an officer witnesses the assault or can find fingerprints, a recording or some other evidence to tie the abuser to the crime. But domestic violence generally takes place within the home and out of sight, with no witnesses but the abuser and his victim. To make a case stick, it usually comes down to the woman testifying against her man.
The dilemma is plain to see in one Friday morning court session in Charleston. A case is dropped after the suspect shows up holding the hand of the girlfriend he’s accused of beating. She tells the prosecutor she just wants the case to go away. Another man soon steps forward with his phone in hand to proffer a text message from the mother of his child. She also has had a change of heart about going forward with charges.
A third man, who has out-of-state convictions for beating women, has his case continued after the girlfriend he is accused of assaulting doesn’t show up for court. When asked where she is, he just scowls and shrugs.
Keep in mind that Charleston is one of the better-equipped cities in the state, with its own designated domestic violence court and a special victims unit with five investigators and three victim advocates. That’s larger than the entire force for 127 police agencies across the state.
In many smaller departments, domestic violence cases are just part of the regular mix for officers. In cities and towns that can’t afford prosecutors, these officers are tasked with presenting the case in court as well.
The state’s Criminal Justice Academy in Columbia has boosted training in recent years for front-line officers in the legal and behavioral aspects of domestic violence. Instructors even use role-playing to help cadets understand how batterers intimidate, isolate and manipulate their victims.
Even with this increased focus on the topic, problems remain.
A year-long study of Charleston County domestic violence incidents, published in 2010, found gaps in documenting key evidence on incident reports.
Officers were left to their own discretion to note when a victim had been strangled — a major indicator of escalating violence. When noted, more than 60 percent of officers used the wrong terminology to describe what happened, potentially hampering prosecutions.
Most of the reports failed to document any past violence against the victim or previous charges against the abuser. Police also seldom lodged additional charges against offenders who exposed children to violence. Just seven of the 315 incidents where children were present resulted in an additional charge of child endangerment, the study found.
“The person taking the physical blows isn’t the only victim,” Wilson, the solicitor, said. “There are also the children, and we see the effects of that.”
Faces of domestic violence
Two years ago, Danielle Richardson poured out her heart in a book titled “God Heard My Cries: The Deliverance.”
She was 37 and had spent much of her adult life drugged, drunk or both to escape what she witnessed at 16.
In the early morning hours of June 18, 1991, her mother’s longtime boyfriend, Greatly Montgomery, stormed into their East Side Charleston home drunk and argumentative, the way he did many nights. He railed at Richardson’s mother and the blows began. Richardson heard her mother’s screams as she tumbled from furniture to wall. Her mother then crashed into Richardson’s bedroom, blood spewing from 38 stab wounds. Richardson pressed a sheet into one gaping wound, but blood still flowed.
Neighbors called 911 and held Montgomery until they arrived and hauled him to jail where he committed suicide a couple weeks later.
The trauma of that night stole the next 16 years of Richardson’s life. Then on July 15, 2007, she woke in pain and vomit and promised God she’d sober up and straighten out her life.
She stumbled a couple of times but eventually found the strength she needed at Ebenezer AME Church on Nassau Street not far from where her mother died.
Today, Richardson says she’s found happiness in motherhood and in God and church.
“I’m determined not to be in an unhealthy relationship ... ever,” she said. “I never want to see anybody carry that burden.”