EDISTO ISLAND — Nearly four years after Joyce Curnell and an acquaintance stole $20 worth of candy bars and beer from a neighborhood convenience store, she still owed about $1,100 in fines and fees for shoplifting.
Curnell had chipped away at her original court-ordered $2,193.90 debt for the better part of a year. But working seasonal jobs, and sometimes without a job, she paid as little as $25 a month. In January 2013, during the lean winter when tourists go home and jobs dry up on the island, she made one last payment of $20 and left it at that. She still owed $1,148.90.
Curnell, who died at the Charleston County jail last year, had committed no other crimes before or since the theft, according to court records, save for her failure to pay the rest of the shoplifting fine.
For people living hand to mouth like Curnell, who stayed with family in a rural stretch of Edisto Island, a simple fine can linger for years.
On July 21, 2015, after Curnell was taken by ambulance to a hospital for nausea and vomiting, law enforcement agents took her from the emergency room to a jail cell. She died there the next day after authorities failed to treat her for stomach flu and dehydration, according to a complaint filed by the family.
A longtime resident of Edisto Island, Curnell lived in a mobile home hemmed in by old cars and scattered piles of oyster shells. Among moss-hung oaks and winter-parched fields, the residences along the road alternate between sagging backwoods shacks and custom-built dream homes.
A flier in a box outside one $320,000 house makes an alluring pitch: “You are just minutes from the beach, and you can enjoy the quiet, peaceful setting of rural life, too!”
Elsewhere on the same road, plastic chairs and torn trash bags tumble around yards in the stiff, salty wind. Porches display sofas and window air-conditioning units that have given up the fight.
On Curnell’s part of the island, many residents work in hotels or restaurants during tourist season, or work in the fields picking vegetables. Friends of the Curnell family say she made ends meet at times by cleaning houses and deveining shrimp at a seafood restaurant.
A neighbor who declined to give her name said she sometimes worked cleaning jobs in hotels like Curnell did. Workers there are often meticulous about scrubbing their hands with sanitizer, the neighbor said, trying not to catch the germs that travelers bring.
At the time of Curnell’s hospitalization and eventual death, the neighbor said a flu-like bug of some sort was working its way through the community.
“I knew she had come down sick for a while,” she said. “Quite a few people in the neighborhood had it.”
Outside the same E-Z Shop convenience store where Curnell earned the shoplifting charge, young and old men hung their legs through the open doors of a parked Chevy Suburban Thursday afternoon, sipping sodas and chatting about who had taken ill, who had work and who did not.
One of them, Gerome Brown, said he is a good friend of Curnell’s son. Brown described her as several neighbors did: A fun-loving and open person, and a good dancer to boot.
Looking toward the plate-glass windows, Brown said he did not know why Curnell decided to steal from the store four years ago.
“Every time someone gets caught up in a bad situation, that doesn’t mean they’re a bad person,” Brown said.
When Joyce Curnell’s son Javon called 911 from the emergency room last July, he said his mother had started drinking again after struggling with alcoholism and that “she needs time to detox.” He said her home had no electricity or running water.
Shaundra Young Scott, director of the American Civil Liberties Union of South Carolina, said Curnell’s death speaks to broader problems in the criminal justice system.
“Clearly, laws that are on the books and fines that are in conjunction with some of the crimes affect minorities and people of color in a more abusive way,” Scott said. “I do feel like there is some disparity that needs to be addressed.”
For state representative and attorney Justin Bamberg, D-Bamberg, the Curnell case bore some resemblances to another Charleston County case from 2015: The police shooting of Walter Scott, an African-American man who was wanted for overdue child support payments and ran from a traffic stop. Activists at the time said Scott had fallen victim to a system that criminalizes debt.
“How they were pulled into the system does not match up with the end result,” said Bamberg, who represented Scott’s family in a civil suit against the city of North Charleston. “The law is what the law is ... but not paying child support or not paying $1,000 in fines, neither of those is punishable by death.”
Reach Paul Bowers at 843-937-5546 or twitter.com/paul_bowers.