Death toll mounts as lawmakers debate

Kim LaBoard and other family members gathered with Rich Robinson, deputy senior chaplain at Coastal Crisis Chaplaincy, at a media conference Tuesday asking for the community’s help for the three children left behind after a double murder-suicide on Wadmalaw Island. It was held at the Charleston Police Department.

At least 30 people have died in South Carolina at the hands of present or former lovers in the eight months since lawmakers pledged to pass reforms to curb the state’s deadly toll from domestic violence.

Two of the most recent killings occurred soon after state lawmakers returned from a mid-session vacation this month and renewed debate over whether the House or the Senate had the better plan for stemming abuse.

Just hours after the House passed its reform bill on April 14, 38-year-old Amie Carol-Suttles Cordova was found stabbed to death on the floor of her boyfriend’s Spartanburg County home, her body covered with multiple wounds. The following day, Kartina Sova’s boyfriend fatally stabbed her just eight miles away. He was shot to death by police as he attacked her, authorities said.

Meanwhile, politics, bragging rights and a squabble over efforts to strip guns from abusers have threatened to derail the reform effort as the General Assembly enters its final stretch before it is scheduled to wrap up in early June. If they fail to act before that time, it could be nine months before they take up the issue again.

In all, at least 18 women and 12 men have been murdered in domestic disputes since late August, when state House and Senate leaders vowed to take action on the problem. Those vows came in the wake of The Post and Courier’s Pulitzer Prize-winning series “Till Death Do Us Part,” which revealed that more than 300 women had died in South Carolina over the past decade while state leaders did little to stem the tide of abuse.

Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, an Orangeburg Democrat, took off her glasses last week and wiped tears from her eyes when she heard the number of women who have been killed since the House began working on the issue. “Wow, wow,” said Cobb-Hunter, a social worker who has worked extensively on domestic violence issues. “Oh my God. That is so sad. It is so sad and so unnecessary.”

She then straightened and said, “We keep fiddling while Rome is burning.”

Members of the House and Senate said the current reform effort is the strongest, most comprehensive push in recent history. Previous efforts have sputtered, including last year, when about a dozen measures to combat domestic violence died in the Legislature for lack of action.

Supporters say that new proposals to toughen criminal penalties, take away abusers’ guns and mandate anti-violence education for school children would be a big step forward for the state. But differences remain between the two chambers’ bills, and supporters fear the effort will falter if a compromise is not reached soon.

The impasse has outraged people such as Emily Joy of Clinton, whose 19-year-old daughter was strangled to death by her boyfriend two years ago. Joy traveled to Columbia in March to tell her story to lawmakers and impress upon them the need for strong action on domestic violence.

“I’m really upset that South Carolina has been this slow in making this decision,” she said. “It’s just unacceptable.”

Sen. Larry Martin, R-Pickens, the chief architect of the Senate domestic violence measure, met last week with House Speaker Jay Lucas on the bill. They both described the meeting as productive and cordial, and they maintained there is still time for a bill to pass this year.

Lucas promised compromise, although he declined to be specific about how the two sides might come to an agreement. “We’re going to have a bill, we’re going to work with the Senate,” Lucas told The Post and Courier. “It’s too important an issue to let dangle during the time were not in session.”

Lucas said he wants to ensure that the strong elements of the House measure end up in whatever compromise emerges. Education for students and a review committee to examine domestic violence problems are among the aspects that make the House measure stronger, Lucas said.

“Not taking a look at social components of changing how people think about this issue was a major weakness of past legislation,” Lucas said. “I think we’ve tried to look at all of those areas in our bill, and I think it’s comprehensive and the best piece of legislation (on domestic violence) I’ve seen come through this body in 17 years.”

Martin said he feels like he hears about the latest domestic violence death on the news nearly every night. He said he’ll also push for compromise this year. “It’s significant we recognize every day that goes by victims and prosecutors won’t have the benefit to address these problems,” Martin said.

Consider that between Aug. 25 and the beginning of the legislative session, 19 men and women died in domestic violence statewide, beginning with 21-year-old Eboni Michelle Drayton, of Conway, a young mother who died on Aug. 29 from an ax blow to the neck. Her boyfriend is charged with her murder.

Eleven more victims have perished since the session convened and debate began on the reform bills. That number included Kennitha LaBoard, 33, who was shot to death Feb. 8 on Wadmalaw Island by her longtime boyfriend, and 32-year-old Angela Taylor, a mother of five gunned down by her husband in their Pendleton home.

Blood from domestic violence also has spilled close to the Statehouse itself. On Feb. 5, shortly after the House reform bill was filed, University of South Carolina professor Raja Fayad was shot dead in his Columbia lab, forcing a lockdown of the campus just a block away from where lawmakers were meeting. Police found Fayad’s estranged wife lying near him with a self-inflicted shot to her abdomen.

Since 2005, at least 426 people have died in domestic violence in South Carolina — 338 of them women, a Post and Courier analysis found. The death toll for women alone over the last decade is more than triple that of the soldiers the state lost in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined. In fact, women die here in domestic violence at a rate of one every 12 days.

“I just hope the (House and Senate) can sort out their procedural issues and make the safety of victims and their children a priority this year,” said Sara Barber, executive director of the South Carolina Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault. “It would be really sad for all of this to come to nothing.”

Charleston Police Chief Greg Mullen agreed. He said he has been particularly mystified at the opposition to the proposed gun ban — which would mirror existing federal law — because such a ban has received widespread support in multiple statewide polls.

Guns have been the weapons of choice in 19, or 63 percent, of the domestic homicides since late August, reflecting a trend that has held steady since 2005, The Post and Courier’s analysis shows.

Though some have suggested that the General Assembly can always renew the debate next year, Mullen wonders at what price.

“How many more victims are going to be murdered who potentially could have been saved if we took deterrent action this year to address the epidemic we are dealing with?” Mullen said. “It’s not going to get any better doing what we are doing right now.”

If history holds true, at least 30 more women will be dead by the end of the next legislative session in June 2016.