COLUMBIA - Curbing the state's deadly toll from domestic violence will be a major goal of South Carolina's House of Representatives in the next session, Speaker Bobby Harrell said.

Till death do us part

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And Sen. Larry Martin of Pickens, head of the powerful Senate Judiciary Committee, said, "It will be a priority with us" as well.

If both chambers of the Legislature do as Harrell and Martin desire, it would be the first time in a decade that lawmakers have taken a concerted effort to reverse the state's status as one of the deadliest in the nation for women.

Committee members

State Rep. Shannon Erickson, a Beaufort Republican who operates three preschools, has been chosen to chair the committee. The panel also includes representatives:

Gilda Cobb-Hunter, D-Orangeburg, a social work administrator.

MaryGail Douglas, D-Fairfield, who is retired.

Ralph Kennedy, R-Lexington, an attorney who serves on the House Judiciary Committee.

Deborah Long, R-Lancaster, an optometrist.

Peter McCoy Jr., R-Charleston, a former prosecutor who is now in private practice.

Robert Ridgeway III, D-Clarendon, a physician and firefighter.

Eddie Tallon, R-Spartanburg, a retired State Law Enforcement Division agent.

Anne Thayer, R-Anderson, who works in real estate.

David Weeks, D-Sumter, an attorney who serves on the House Judiciary Committee.

The pair's call for action came within days of The Post and Courier running a five-part series detailing the Palmetto State's poor record in protecting women from domestic violence. The series "Till death do us part" revealed that more than 300 women have died at the hands of men over the last 10 years, about one death every 12 days from domestic abuse.

Harrell cited the newspaper's statistic in a statement announcing his appointment of a 10-member committee that will spend the coming months studying ways to improve South Carolina's domestic violence laws and raising public awareness about the problem. Harrell called the death toll unacceptable and said the state needs to do better.

"There is more that we can do as a state to better protect our citizens and help prevent this type of abuse," the Charleston Republican said. "It's time to make South Carolina's criminal domestic violence laws better."

The state currently ranks as No. 1 in the nation for the rate of women killed by men, and it has been among the worst 10 states for 15 years, ever since the Violence Policy Center in Washington, D.C., began the rankings.

A dozen measures aimed at strengthening the state's domestic violence laws died this past session for lack of action after getting stalled in the House or Senate judiciary committees. The lone measure approved and signed into law provides for court-ordered protection for the pets of the victims of domestic violence.

Still, Harrell vowed that will change in the next session. "Our state has several vital areas we need to improve upon and that is why it is important this Committee begin its work now."

Martin, the Senate Judiciary Committee head, said he plans to undertake a fact-finding mission of his own. He said that over the next couple of weeks he intends to talk with a women's shelter director and a key domestic violence prosecutor to see what specific steps the state can take to help protect victims and hold abusers accountable.

He said he wants to find out "what we need to do to replicate" the criminal domestic violence system run by the Lexington County Sheriff's Department. That unit, which coordinates investigation, prosecution, courts, abuser counseling and victim advocates, is widely considered the best in the state.

Seeking change

The House committee named by Harrell is made up of six Republican and four Democrats who have a range of occupations and hail from all over the state. Its makeup is evenly split between men and women.

That is noteworthy in itself because the Legislature has been a male-dominated affair since its inception. The state ranks 49th in the nation for the number of women elected to its Legislature, according to the Center for American Women and Politics. And that's an improvement. For the decade until 2012, it ranked dead last every year.

Republican Rep. Shannon Erickson of Beaufort chairs the new committee, which held a brief organizational meeting Wednesday after the House's special session.

Erickson said the committee would hold three or four possibly day-long meetings in Columbia. They plan to start with expert testimony next month and then take public testimony on another date. The committee's schedule has not yet been determined.

Erickson, a House member since 2007, said after the meeting that she would bring her perspective as an educator and teacher. "It impacts the state so strongly, especially our families," she said.

Erickson has a reputation as a cost-conscious conservative who also has earned high marks on conservation issues. She has pushed legislation to protect children and endangered women, including an unsuccessful 2009 effort to penalize insurance companies if they discriminated against domestic violence victims by considering abuse a pre-existing condition.

Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, has worked closely with Erickson on various issues affecting their area. He described her as a diligent, thoughtful legislator who takes great care to make informed decisions.

"She is a very good choice," he said. "There is a wealth of knowledge out there, and she is someone who is willing to listen, keep an open mind and draw from best practices."

Sara Barber, executive director of the S.C. Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault, said her organization has already reached out to Erickson and expressed its willingness to work with the committee.

"Our hope is that there is important momentum building that will raise awareness and the level of accountability for perpetrators while improving protections for the silent population living in fear of violence and abuse from their loved ones," she said.

Davis said he hopes the effort will bring about meaningful change. He credited The Post and Courier with holding the Legislature accountable on the issue and making sure domestic violence is front-and-center on lawmakers' radar. "Sometimes it takes getting embarrassed to do the right thing," he said, "and some lawmakers should be embarrassed by this."

Doug Pardue contributed to this report.