The following is part of a multi-week series on domestic violence in South Carolina.
MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. (WBTW) – In a murder case, a jury knows that the victim won’t be in court. But when a suspect is on trial for domestic violence, and a victim doesn’t appear to testify, they have a different outlook.
Experts are hoping that expanding domestic violence services will help survivors be willing to testify – and that education will make judges and juries more understanding how intricate domestic violence cases can be.
“Selfishly, from a prosecutor’s standpoint, when an outside group like the Family Justice Center is able to make a victim whole, or close to being whole, then they are able to come in and testify and tell a jury of their peers what is taking place, and that is a big hole in our system right now, and it’s a hole we have had to deal with for a while,” said Fifteenth Circuit Court Solicitor Jimmy Richardson. “But a jury really wants to see someone take the stand and say, ‘This is what happened to me. This is what was going on at the time,’ just like you would in any other case.”
Horry County will soon gain a domestic violence shelter, bringing services closer to where most survivors who visit the Family Justice Center live.
But that’s only one piece of the complex puzzle of creating a court system that’s friendlier for survivors, and making sure that cases are able to be pursued to a conviction.
South Carolina needs to evaluate and examine its training at all levels in the judicial system, according to the state’s most recent annual report from its domestic violence committee.
That training, the report said, needs to include meeting with family court judges to explain how issuing an order of protection for each party is harmful.
When judges are “trained to understand what victims go through to leave a potentially lethal situation, most describe it as a revelation,” according to the report.
That annual report dives into a case study from a March 2016 murder-suicide in Aiken County, where a woman was killed by a romantic partner she’d evicted five months earlier. She’d told the court that she was evicting him because of physical abuse, but the magistrate judge never discussed granting her a restraining order during the hearing, according to the report.
Those orders can give aggressors a cooling-off period to prevent future violence, and increases the penalties an abuser can face in the court system.
Richardson said his prosecutors always ask for a protective order to be added to a bond condition.
“The great thing about protective orders is it comes before a conviction in this period of purgatory between when a person is arrested and when they are convicted,” he said. “That really helps out, and that has a lot of teeth in it, because if you violate that protective order, chances are you aren’t going to get a bond.”
Asking for someone’s bond to be denied after a protective order is violated, Richardson said, only sometimes works.
“It is sort of hit and miss,” Richardson said. “Sometimes you go upstairs you know that there is no way that this person is going to leave the courtroom without going to jail.”
Things a judge might not see as related to a domestic violence case – like an abuser checking a victim’s odometer and gas use, controlling finances and using visitation to undermine them – are, according to Sara Barber, the executive director of the South Carolina Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault (SCCADVASA).
“There are many different aspects of domestic violence, and sometimes we train people to focus on only the physical, and we miss out on all the systematic controls,” she said.
Dual orders of protection are harmful to survivors, Barber said, because they can impact divorce and custody hearings. A dual order is often used by the abuser – who often tries to get sole custody of children – to manipulate and undermine family court. If officers show up and see each party is under an order, it can impact how police respond to the situation.
Training has been eye-opening for judges, according to Monique Garvin, the Violence Against Women Act program coordinator for the South Carolina Attorney General’s Office.
“Judges should know about it because while it is important for the officers to investigate the cases and for attorneys to prosecute the case, if a judge doesn’t agree with the outcomes, the judges are in control of how offenders are held accountable,” she said.
Garvin’s team trains officials throughout the state. In classes, teachers talk about strategies, restraining orders and how to implement existing tools. Training is not required, but counts toward a judge’s continuing education credits.
Often, judges will tell her that they’d never thought about something until she’d taught it to them.
“There are still some knowledge gaps in our community that need to be addressed, and so I think if we continue to focus on those changes and really work to see what else we can be doing to support legislation in our state,” Gavin said.
As Horry County grows, so does the number of domestic violence cases reported to police. There were 1,044 domestic violence warrants issued in 2018, and 1,072 last year in Horry County, according to Richardson.
The penalties for offenders has increased since 2015, doubling the time that someone would be incarcerated. Prior to 2015, the highest penalty, which could be pursued if a suspect seriously injured a victim, was ten years behind bars.
New laws set the lowest penalty at up to 90 days in jail and up to $2,500 in penalties. The highest offense now comes with up to two decades of incarceration.
The changes expanded the criteria for domestic violence, including upping penalties if a suspect violated a protective order, if the abuse happened when a minor or present or if the victim was pregnant. It also specifies strangulation as an offense.
While some of those penalties are a drastic difference, Richardson said tripling the time from 30 days to 90 days for a first offense gives more time for a survivor to make arrangements about where to move or to get into a shelter.
At some point, he said, offenders will likely get out on bond. However, having penalties increased for violating a protective order may be a deterrent to stay away, or could be a reason why bond can be denied the next time.
Still, he said, there’s some things in the law that still need to be tightened up. Offenders are still allowed to keep their guns. That’d be an easy fix, according to Richardson, that would also greatly lower the chance an offender will go on to kill their victim.
About 40 South Carolinians were killed in domestic violence situations last year – and most of them were shot.
Richardson also thinks it’s a good move to add dating relationships to domestic violence definitions.
Gavin said it’s important for the state to have a coordinated response to domestic violence and for agencies to understand best practices so that everyone knows what is expected and when a perpetrator can receive more than one charge.
That training looks different depending on what community it is. Garvin said rural areas, for example, have high homelessness rates and no domestic violence shelters.
She said there’s been challenges in fine tuning ways to make protective orders more accessible and to raise awareness about them. She wants gun prohibitions for offenders extended, and for judges to understand that a federal law bans someone from owning a firearm after they’ve been convicted of domestic violence.
In addition to funding domestic violence efforts, she wants lawmakers to see firsthand the people who are being impacted. With more than four in 10 women in South Carolina who will be abused in their lifetime, everyone knows someone.
Testifying in court, with an abuser watching, can be terrifying. Doing it and not knowing what a reaction will be, only increases that anxiety.
“Many people are afraid they won’t be believed in court,” Barber said.
There’s other factors that keep survivors from court. They might not be able to take the time off work, which can lead to assumptions about why they’re not there. They might be able to access childcare or a vehicle. Some survivors have to attend court multiple times, Barber said, and watch as nothing happens that day.
“That is part of that whole process,” she said. “It is not victim-friendly, and I understand that some of that is just the way the system works, but we can’t pretend that it is victim-friendly.”
Richardson is optimistic the addition of a domestic violence shelter in Horry County will help survivors feel the support they need to move forward with a case and testify.
What commonly happens, he said, is that a suspect will be arrested, and then the victim will ask for charges to be dismissed within a week or two. Since the victim and the suspect are in a relationship, they might not want that to end, the suspect might threaten the victim into dropping charges or the victim might not want the suspect to go to jail because they’re the financial provider for the family.
Trying that case without the victim, Richardson said, makes getting a conviction extremely difficult.
What could help fill the gap is teaching about the psychology behind domestic violence and how intricate cases are.
“Every burglary is going to be the same,” Richardson said. “Domestic violence, not so much.”
He said victims often think that they don’t have to repeat their testimony in court if they already gave a statement to police. That isn’t true.
“If you don’t come in, everything for the most part that an officer saw or heard is hearsay,” he said.
He said police can also do a better job of expanding the witness pool by talking to neighbors, and returning to the scene a few days later to take pictures of bruising, which normally doesn’t show right away.
He urges witnesses to reach out to police.
“We have been told to mind your own business and stay out of it, and that’s fairly good advice on other stuff, but when it comes to domestic violence, it is critical that the community stands up and gives a voice to people who may not have a voice,” Richardson said.
Crisis line: 844-208-0161
Crisis line: 800-273-1820