Till death do us part: South Carolina’s murder rate for women is more than double that of the nation

Doug Pardue, Glenn Smith, Jennifer Berry Hawes and Natalie Caula Hauff, Till death do us part. Post and Courier, 19 August 2014. “More than 300 women were shot, stabbed, strangled, beaten, bludgeoned or burned to death over the past decade by men in South Carolina, dying at a rate of one every 12 days while the state does little to stem the carnage from domestic abuse.” Seven-part series.

Update: Winner of the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.

Excerpts from stories:

More than three times as many women have died here at the hands of current or former lovers than the number of Palmetto State soldiers killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined.

It’s a staggering toll that for more than 15 years has placed South Carolina among the top 10 states nationally in the rate of women killed by men. The state topped the list on three occasions, including this past year, when it posted a murder rate for women that was more than double the national rate.

Awash in guns, saddled with ineffective laws and lacking enough shelters for the battered, South Carolina is a state where the deck is stacked against women trapped in the cycle of abuse, a Post and Courier investigation has found.

Couple this with deep-rooted beliefs about the sanctity of marriage and the place of women in the home, and the vows “till death do us part” take on a sinister tone….

Interviews with more than 100 victims, counselors, police, prosecutors and judges reveal an ingrained, multi-generational problem in South Carolina, where abusive behavior is passed down from parents to their children. Yet the problem essentially remains a silent epidemic, a private matter that is seldom discussed outside the home until someone is seriously hurt.

“We have the notion that what goes on between a couple is just between the couple and is none of our business,” said 9th Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson, chief prosecutor for Charleston and Berkeley counties. “Where that analysis goes wrong is we have to remember that couple is training their little boy that this is how he treats women and training their little girl that this is what she should expect from her man. The cycle is just perpetual.”…

Though state officials have long lamented the high death toll for women, lawmakers have put little money into prevention programs and have resisted efforts to toughen penalties for abusers. This past year alone, a dozen measures to combat domestic violence died in the Legislature….

All 46 counties have at least one animal shelter to care for stray dogs and cats, but the state has only 18 domestic violence shelters to help women trying to escape abuse in the home. Experts say that just isn’t enough in a state that records around 36,000 incidents of domestic abuse every year. More than 380 victims were turned away from shelters around the state between 2012 and 2013 because they had no room, according to the state Department of Social Services….

When asked, most state legislators profess deep concern over domestic violence. Yet they maintain a legal system in which a man can earn five years in prison for abusing his dog but a maximum of just 30 days in jail for beating his wife or girlfriend on a first offense….

Guns were the weapon of choice in nearly seven out of every 10 domestic killings of women over the past decade, but South Carolina lawmakers have blocked efforts to keep firearms out of the hands of abusers. Unlike South Carolina, more than two-thirds of all states bar batterers facing restraining orders from having firearms, and about half of those allow or require police to seize guns when they respond to domestic violence complaints….

Located in the heart of the Bible Belt, South Carolina is a deeply conservative state where men have ruled for centuries. The state elected its first female governor four years ago, but men continue to dominate elected offices, judicial appointments and other seats of government and corporate power. In many respects, the state’s power structure is a fraternity reluctant to challenge the belief that a man’s home is his castle and what goes on there, stays there.

“Some of this is rooted in this notion of women as property and maintaining the privacy of what goes on within the walls of the home,” said state Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, an Orangeburg Democrat. “And a lot of it has to do with this notion of gun rights as well. When all of those things are rolled into one, it tends to speak to why we rank so high in the number of fatalities.”…

This has bred a tolerance of domestic violence that has passed through so many generations, behind so many closed doors, that today South Carolina ranks No. 1 nationwide in the rate of men killing women….

South Carolina has been a patriarchal society from its very inception, and women have long been relegated to a secondary status.

They lacked the right to serve on juries here until 1967, and the Palmetto State didn’t formally ratify the 19th Amendment giving women the right to vote until two years later. Women couldn’t file for divorce in South Carolina until 1949. Marital rape wasn’t criminalized until 1991….

What pastors communicate to their flocks also can fuel the problem, if inadvertently: Scripture says women are to be submissive. Suffering is part of life, as Jesus suffered for your sins, on the path to salvation. Divorce is a sin….

To produce this series, The Post and Courier reviewed dozens of reports and studies, examined efforts underway in other states and interviewed more than 100 police officers, lawyers, judges, victims, counselors, victim advocates, politicians, clergy and more. This endeavor produced a number of concrete proposals aimed at curbing the bloodshed.

Some proposed fixes would cost money, but most could be accomplished with existing resources and some revisions to the state’s laws. What is really needed is leadership from top elected officials, commitment from each of the state’s counties and the participation of an engaged public.