Rally, town hall to highlight efforts to stem domestic violence in S.C.

Silhouettes are carried by volunteers and family members to represent each of the 46 people killed in domestic violence across South Carolina in 2013 as part of the annual Silent Witness Ceremony at the Statehouse in October. Grace Beahm/Staff

The new year began with the discovery of a young woman slumped inside her Greenville home, dead from a gunshot wound to her head.

Investigators quickly turned their suspicions to 31-year-old Vanessa Perry Williams' husband, who was missing. But before they could charge him with murder, Damien Williams turned the gun on himself during a 12-hour standoff with Charlotte police. He later died.

The Upstate woman became the first person in South Carolina to die in domestic violence in 2015, joining a long, tragic parade of casualties that has made the state among the deadliest for women for more than a decade.

Since 2005, at least 414 people have died in domestic killings in the Palmetto State - about 80 percent of them women, according to a Post and Courier analysis.

Two events scheduled for Tuesday aim to draw attention to that staggering toll and highlight the efforts underway to turn the tide on the carnage.

At 11:30 a.m., Attorney General Alan Wilson will lead prosecutors, police and victim advocates in a rally on the Statehouse steps in Columbia to demand that lawmakers press for reform of the state's domestic violence laws as they begin this year's legislative session.

The event, a "Call to Action," aims to build support for tougher penalties on abusers, among other things.

Then, at 7 p.m., The Post and Courier teams with WCIV-TV and the College of Charleston to host a town hall forum on South Carolina's battle with domestic violence.

The one-hour forum, which is free and open to the public, takes place at the college's Sottile Theatre on George Street and will be televised live on WCIV Channel 4 and partner stations WPDE in Florence and WACH in Columbia.

Sara Barber, executive director of the S.C. Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault, said the importance of the events is that they will bring together stakeholders with the power to effect change on a statewide level. She said she believes the momentum exists for a bipartisan movement to change the way domestic violence is addressed in South Carolina.

"Passing legislation is a meaningful step in changing our culture into one that refuses to accept domestic violence as an ongoing tradition in our communities," said Barber, scheduled to speak at both events.

Becky Callaham, executive director of Safe Harbor, which runs three domestic violence shelters in the Upstate, will join Barber and others at the college forum. She said 2015 is a "very critical year" tackling domestic violence in South Carolina.

"We are either going to keep talking about the problem, or we are going to take action," she said. "If we don't take a firm stance and create meaningful change now, we may lose the opportunity to show victims that their lives matter and that domestic violence is a priority in South Carolina."

Tuesday's events come in the wake of The Post and Courier's investigative series, "Till Death Do Us Part," which revealed that more than 300 women had been killed in domestic violence in South Carolina over the past decade, dying at a rate of about one every 12 days while the state did little to stop the bloodshed. Last year alone, a dozen measures to combat domestic violence died in the Legislature for lack of action.

State leaders have pledged that this year will be different.

A special House committee appointed after the series' August publication has been working to produce a comprehensive package of reform bills in time for the session's start. A member of that panel, Charleston Republican Rep. Peter McCoy, will be among the participants at Tuesday night's forum.

The powerful chairman of South Carolina's Senate Judiciary Committee has introduced a measure that would broaden and toughen criminal penalties for those charged with domestic violence. Sen. Larry Martin's bill also would prevent abusers from harassing victims and bars those convicted of domestic violence from possessing a gun, among other provisions.

While lawmakers have worked on preparing these reform measures, the death toll has continued to climb. Since "Till Death Do Us Part," was published in August, at least 17 people - 11 women and six men - have died in domestic killings across the state.

They include people such as Rebecca Sue Melton, who allegedly was suffocated by her boyfriend with bubble wrap inside her Hilton Head home in September. And University of South Carolina student Diamoney Greene, shot dead in her Columbia apartment in November by her boyfriend, who then took his own life. And Augustina Hernandez-Hernandez, who was stabbed to death that same month in Mount Pleasant, allegedly by her husband.

Charleston Police Chief Greg Mullen, who created a special unit in his department to tackle family violence, is a featured participant at both events Tuesday. He said statistics show that a woman is assaulted or beaten every nine seconds in the United States, and that domestic violence remains the leading cause of injury to women - sobering statistics that demand action, Mullen said

Mullen said he speaks with people every day who are concerned about the amount of violence in their neighborhoods, fearful that they or their families might become victims as well.

"Now imagine that you have to live with this fear every day in your own home. That your concern is not whether violence is going to touch you and your family, but when," he said. "To start every day of your life worrying if this is the day that you, and possibly your children, will be injured or killed is destructive in so many ways.

"This is not hypothetical for thousands of women and children in South Carolina," he said. "This is their reality and thankfully, we have an opportunity this year to help stop this tragic, ongoing situation."

Doug Pardue contributed to this report.