Pulitzer-winning report leads S.C. lawmakers to push for stronger domestic abuse laws

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  • Editor’s note:

    The headline has been changed to clarify that South Carolina has yet to pass recent legislation strengthening its domestic abuse laws.


    Finally tonight: a Pulitzer Prize winning newspaper series that cast a spotlight on the deadly problem of domestic violence in South Carolina.

    Charleston's Post and Courier won the Public Service Prize for its series titled "Till Death Do Us Part."

    Jeffrey Brown has a look behind the work.


    It grew into a major seven-part series documenting from many point of view, victims, law enforcement, and others, a huge problem in South Carolina and other states, domestic violence and abuse of women.

    Among the findings, more than 300 women were killed by men in the state over the past decade, making it, for several years, the most deadly state for domestic violence.

    Glenn Smith is one of the lead reporters who was part of the team. He joins me now.

    And congratulations to you first.

    I gather this all really began when members of your team saw some of these statistics and they jumped out at you. Tell us what happened.

    GLENN SMITH, The Post and Courier: Well, it was in the fall of 2013.

    The Violence Policy Center in Washington, D.C., they put out an annual ranking of the most dangerous states for women based on the rate of women killed by men. South Carolina came out at the top of the list. They put out a press release. It didn't seem to attract much attention at all, and we started to wonder, why is that so? Why haven't we paid more attention this?

    Looking back over a 15-year period, we have led the list three times and been in the top 10 every year that the list had been published. And we said, why — why is South Carolina so bad? What is driving this?


    One of the things that you end up documenting in a lot of different ways is a kind of culture of violence or a culture of tolerance of violence. Tell us what struck you there.

    Well, I think, particularly in the upper part of the state, where it's sort of in the Bible Belt, it's not a tolerance of violence, so much as deeply religious held beliefs about the sanctity of marriage and women's place in the home.

    Church — churches might be counseling victims to stay with their abuser, to keep the marriage together. So a lot of this stuff is just — it just stays behind closed doors and people don't get help.


    You and your colleagues talked to many, many women for this, and there are some powerful videos that you have included.




    I want to show a short clip of one of them. This is a woman named Dolly Ritchie. She describes what happened to her with a man she was involved with.

    And, for our audience, I will just say it contains some graphic material.


    He was Mr. Charm at first and then he turned out to be Mr. Harm.

    And what started happening is that I noticed I could not talk to certain people. I had to keep my head down because that meant I was flirting if I dared to look at another man. I was continuously assaulted, at least three times a night. I was being raped.

    And whenever I complained about the treatment, I was threatened that I would be thrown up against the wall, and it would be best for me just to keep my mouth shut. The last month, I knew that if I didn't get away from him, that I would — I would die. He would wind up killing me.


    Was it hard to find these stories, or did women want to — want to tell what had happened to them, want to speak out?


    It was very hard. It's very brave of a woman like Dolly to come forward and tell her story like this. It's just an unbelievably awful thing to have happen to you. And to be brave enough to share that with a wider audience is — yes, it wasn't easy.


    You found that state and local governments were, well — and law enforcement, they weren't taking strong action. There weren't even tough penalties on the books to deal with this. Tell us a little bit about what you found.



    Here in South Carolina, if you kick your dog, you beat your dog, you will end up in facing a maximum five years in prison. If you end up abusing your girlfriend or your wife on a first offense, you're not going to face any more than 30 days in jail. Ends up we have something in the neighborhood of 36,000 criminal domestic violence cases every year, and the courts are clogged with them.

    It's a misdemeanor offense in a lot of cases, in most cases, and the police, the prosecutors, there's a lot of well-intentioned folks working on it, but kind of working in silos. And it just allowed this — abusers to get off more often than not.


    Well, so what kind of responses did you get to the series? What impact did it have?


    Well, we got a great response to the series right off the bat.

    We were kind of curious as to how lawmakers would receive it, because we called a lot of them out by name, and held them accountable for not taking more action over the course of a decade. There were just dozens of bills that had gotten introduced and just languished in committees and died for lack of attention.

    But when the series was published, the response was overwhelming. The state house speaker at the time, he appointed a special committee and said he wanted them to come up with a reform bill by the time the session started in January. The Senate's judiciary chairman, he jumped right on it, came up with his own bill.

    Local groups — the Charleston police have done a magnificent job trying to build a family violence unit to tackle this stuff. The prosecutor's office, she sent people to Massachusetts to learn the latest techniques for tracking abusers and protecting women. And it's created a really large dialogue statewide on the issue.


    Just recently, though, I think I saw that you have reported that some of these legislative efforts have stalled or seem to have stalled.


    Well, the House has its plan for how to solve this, and the Senate has its plan, and they're not all that far off, but they seem to want to be going in different directions on this, rather than one choosing the other bill to work on and getting it passed.

    There's still some time left. It's — it remains to be seen, what's going to be coming of it.


    Let me just ask you very briefly, a relatively small newspaper you are to take on something this ambitious and, let's face it, in an age where newspapers, most of them are shrinking.


    Right, right.

    Well, I have got to say, I have worked at The Post and Courier for 15 years, and it's just a great place where, from the top down, the belief is just that these stories matter, that good, thoroughly reported, in-depth journalism matters. So they gave us the time and resources.

    We also got a big boost on this when the Center for Investigative Reporting in California came along and offered to do some editing help and give us some guidance on other resources, so that — was really able to work with a crackerjack team there.


    All right, Glenn Smith of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Post and Courier in Charleston, South Carolina, thanks so much.


    Thanks for having me on.

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