Becky Callaham stepped onto the South Carolina Statehouse grounds, filled with optimism, to support a proposed law that would provide better protections for victims of domestic violence. She thought lawmakers would be stirred to action by the national scorn the state has received since September when it was ranked No. 1 in the nation in the rate of women killed by men.
Callaham, executive director of Safe Harbor, a Greenville-based women’s shelter, figured legislators might finally be ready to pass a new law aimed at stemming the carnage.
“I felt like we really could get something done.”
She left the March 27 hearing with her hope all but shattered. She didn’t know the legislators on the panel, but one of them asked her a question that referred to female victims as “those types of people.”
Her mouth fell open in shock at the attitude she thought had died long ago.
And she watched the bill get dismembered as its sponsors tried in vain to win over lawmakers with objections about gun restrictions, increased sentences and the legal rights of accused abusers.
The bill’s provision for the surrender of firearms was dropped and the proposal for a maximum 180-day sentence on first conviction was cut to 60 days.
“It got chipped away to nothing, then died,” Callaham said. “I was so frustrated. I was naive.”
A trail of death and inaction
The bill Callaham supported was filed Dec. 3, the first of seven proposed laws in what appeared to be a major effort by lawmakers to tackle the state’s status as the nation’s most deadly for women.
By the time the bill was formally introduced a month later at the opening of the 2014 legislative session, 72-year-old Andrenna Butler would be found by a neighbor dead on the floor of her Newberry home. She had a bullet in her head from what police described as a domestic dispute with her ex-husband of 50 years.
Before the first words of the bill were read on the House floor, five other South Carolina residents would die, also victims of domestic violence.
And the day after the bill was read and referred to the House Judiciary Committee for review, Sheddrick Miller armed himself with a handgun in his suburban Columbia home not far from the Capitol building. The 38-year-old methodically went from bedroom to bedroom, shot his two children, ages 3 and 1, in their heads, then killed his wife, Kia, and took his own life. Police described it as a tragic explosion of domestic violence.
None of these killings seemed to resonate much inside the halls of the Statehouse. In fact, one month after Miller obliterated his family 11 miles from the Senate floor, lawmakers approved a measure to expand gun rights, allowing people to carry loaded, concealed weapons into a bar or restaurant.
By the end of that month, all seven of the new domestic violence bills would be referred for study to either the House or Senate Judiciary committees. There, they joined five other proposed domestic violence laws left over from the previous year’s legislative session.
Both committees are filled with lawyers, many of whom practice criminal defense and are inherently suspicious of attempts to ratchet up penalties for offenders. The committees also are loaded with men. The 23-member Senate Judiciary Committee has only one woman. The House Judiciary has 25 members, of which five are women. And the subcommittee Callaham testified before contains no female members.
Rep. Bill Crosby, a Charleston Republican who pushed another measure to combat domestic violence, said many of the members on the committee are attorneys, “and they typically argue against strong penalties.”
If proposals make it out of these committees, they stand a decent chance of becoming law. But the committees also function like a legislative purgatory of sorts, a black hole in the process where unpopular bills languish in a limbo state until the clock simply runs out. In this manner, no one is required to take a stand and no up-or-down vote need take place. Committees instead adjourn debate, and the proposal just goes away with no record of why or who’s responsible.
The last time the Legislature took a stab at strengthening domestic violence laws was a decade ago when fines and sentences were increased for repeat offenders. Lawmakers also added a mandatory one-year sentence for those convicted of domestic violence of a “high and aggravated” nature.
Opponents of those changes argued at the time that the increased penalties might result in people being arrested on lesser charges, such as assault. But a 2007 study by the state Office of Research and Statistics showed no substantive change.
More needs to be done
All of the legislators interviewed by The Post and Courier about South Carolina’s deadly ranking for women agreed something more needs to be done to stem the brutality. But, they said, it often takes time to reach compromises to create workable laws.
It’s time many women don’t have, Callaham said.
In the two months between Miller’s deadly rampage and Callaham’s testimony in the House committee, seven more South Carolinians died from domestic violence, including 24-year-old Jeremy Williamson of North.
Williamson had been implicated in two earlier incidents of domestic violence for which he was not arrested. And he was awaiting trial on a charge of criminal domestic violence for a third incident when he got into an argument with his girlfriend, Shayla Davis, 23, in the early morning hours of Feb. 2.
Police said Davis tried to leave, but Williamson dragged her back into the house, punched the back of her head and threw her to the floor. She struggled to her feet, grabbed a gun and ordered him to leave, but he lunged for her and took a bullet to his stomach.
Williamson died shortly after at a hospital. Orangeburg County Sheriff Leroy Ravenell called the killing justified because Davis was in fear for her life.
Ravenell labeled it another example of the epidemic of domestic violence sweeping the state.
“We must take steps now to improve a victim’s ability to get the resources necessary to better manage and eventually leave these relationships,” the sheriff told The (Orangeburg) Times and Democrat.
Brought to tears
Similar sentiments drove Democratic Rep. Bakari Sellers of Denmark to sponsor the bill Callaham went to the capitol to support. Sellers said he drafted the measure after attending October’s “Silent Witness” ceremony, a somber gathering in which the names of those killed in domestic violence the previous year are read aloud. It’s an effort by the state Attorney General’s Office to call attention to the macabre toll.
As name followed name, “I literally cried,” Sellers said.
Sellers said he believes his bill did not get an honest consideration from the House Judiciary’s Criminal Laws Subcommittee. He wouldn’t name the lawmaker but said one expressed dismissive questions that blame women for not leaving their abusers.
Several people who were at the hearing, but didn’t want their names used because they have to appear before the committee, identified the panel member as Republican Rep. Eddie Tallon of Spartanburg.
Tallon is a retired SLED agent who is known in the Legislature as an advocate for law enforcement and public safety issues.
“I’m the law-and-order guy on that committee,” Tallon said. “I can’t imagine me saying anything. ... If something was said, it was not said in a derogatory manner.”
As far as domestic violence is concerned, he said, “We certainly have a problem. Anything we can do to help stem it, we need to do.”
Sellers said the Legislature needs to do just that, fix it. He said that as a lawyer who has defended male and female abusers, he’s seen the system’s problems and believes his bill would have gone a long way toward solving those problems, especially with tougher penalties and more court-ordered counseling for batterers.
Though it can be difficult to pinpoint exactly who worked behind closed doors to scuttle this year’s reform effort, some key opponents are well-known.
Republican Sen. Lee Bright of Spartanburg is a fervent defender of gun rights, and he is suspicious of many of the proposals that included provisions to restrict access to firearms. Bright, a member of the powerful Senate Judiciary Committee where five of the bills died this year, said many of the proponents of stiffer domestic violence laws use them as a cover for restricting guns.
“There’s a segment of our population that wants to take our gun rights,” said Bright, who raffled off an AR-15 rifle this year as part of a bid for U.S. Senate.
In the Senate in particular, such sentiment can be fatal to a bill’s chances because all it takes to basically stop a measure is one senator’s opposition.
Republican Sen. Larry Martin of Pickens, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, had no explanation for what happened to the bills that died in his committee. But he said his panel has tackled meaningful domestic measures in years past and generally stands behind efforts to protect women.
“We passed some good things that I believe made a real difference but we still have a long way to go,” Martin said.
House Minority Leader Rep. J. Todd Rutherford of Columbia also doesn’t hesitate to voice his dislike of virtually all of the bills designed to strengthen the state’s domestic violence laws. Rutherford, a criminal defense attorney in Columbia and a former prosecutor, is a member of the House Judiciary Committee, where seven of the domestic violence bills died.
Rutherford blames victim advocates for poisoning the well. He said all they do is push for laws that make it harder for the accused to get out of jail on bond and easier to increase their time behind bars once convicted of abuse.
He said such laws fail to take into account that many cases involve families that might be preserved if the abusers were given more options to avoid higher bonds, stiffer fines and convictions.
The current maximum 30-day jail sentence for first-offense criminal domestic violence might not seem like much to some, Rutherford said, but it’s a long time for most people to be locked up. If jailed, the man could lose his family, his job, his benefits and his house, he said.
Rutherford contends that’s why so many women want to drop the charges after they call police: They realize the destructive consequences for the whole family.
Rutherford wants more pretrial diversion, counseling and classes to help change behavior, reaching not only perpetrators but also young people who might otherwise become perpetrators.
“We’ve got to show them a different way. We truly need to take a comprehensive look at how to fix the problem ... all we do is lock people up,” he said.
But don’t expect him to propose such a bill, Rutherford said, because his political opponents will accuse him of “pandering to offenders.”
Besides, he said, “It’s an exercise in futility because that takes money and we’re not going to spend it.”
Republican Rep. Greg Delleney of Chester, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, did not return phone calls from the newspaper.
Focus on the causes
Between the end of March and the conclusion of the legislative session in June, six more domestic killings made headlines across the state.
Among those to die was 55-year-old Mariann Eileen O’Shields. She had checked herself and her daughter into a domestic violence shelter in Spartanburg and filed for a court order of protection to keep her husband away.
On April 30, she walked her 8-year-old daughter to the bus stop, not far from the SAFE Homes shelter where they were hiding. After her daughter boarded the bus to school, O’Shields walked back toward the shelter, less than 200 yards away.
A white van pulled near her. Gunshots shattered the quiet. She fell to the ground with three bullet wounds and died in an operating room. Her estranged husband, Robert Lee O’Shields, 52, awaits trial on a murder charge.
Republican Sen. Tom Corbin represents Greenville and Spartanburg in the Legislature. He also is a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, where he opposed domestic violence bills with provisions to restrict firearms.
Corbin likened his feelings about gun restrictions to an episode of the 1970s television comedy “All in the Family.”
In the episode, he said, “Gloria is talking about gun control and how people were killed by guns and Archie said, ‘Would you feel better if they got pushed out the window?’ ”
Domestic abusers can turn to other weapons, such as knives or rocks or sticks, to get the end result they’re seeking: murder. Restricting guns won’t help solve that, Corbin said.
“A lot of times we’re not focused on the right thing. We need to focus on what causes violence and try to stop that,” Corbin said. “There needs to be a lot more love for Jesus in the world, and I think that would curb a lot of violence.”
By the time the legislative session ended in June, all but one of the domestic violence bills had died in committee.
The lone exception: a measure approved by the Legislature in early June and signed into law by Gov. Nikki Haley. It provides for court-ordered protection for the pets of the victims of domestic violence.
Sellers, the Democratic House member from Denmark, said the Legislature’s failure to pass any of the bills to protect domestic abuse victims, yet pass one to protect their pets, offers a sad commentary.
“When you say it like that, it’s laughable. Then you have to stop and say, ‘You know it’s not funny.’ A woman dying: It supersedes all politics, but it apparently doesn’t supersede ignorance.”