Women killed by men

People carry silhouettes to represent those killed in domestic violence in South Carolina, part of the annual Silent Witness Ceremony held at the Statehouse each October. File/Grace Beahm/Staff

South Carolina again ranks fifth-worst in the nation for women killed by men after their fatality rate moved up slightly, a new report says.

For two decades, the Violence Policy Center in Washington, D.C., has released its annual study titled “When Men Murder Women,” and every year South Carolina has ranked in the top 10. The new ranking marks the sixth straight year South Carolina has landed in the top five.

Last year, the state dropped to fifth place after ranking No. 1 the previous year, a shameful spot it has held four times.

In the most recent report, released Friday, Alaska topped the list, as it did last year. It was followed by Nevada, Louisiana, Tennessee and then South Carolina. The rankings are based on 2015 deaths.

Nine out of 10 victims knew their killers.

Advocates saw reason to hope that fewer women in South Carolina will die at the hands of intimate partners in the coming years.

"Nothing happens overnight. Bills don't get passed overnight. Culture doesn't change overnight," said Christan Rainey of North Charleston, who became a vocal advocate after his stepfather killed his mother and all four of his younger siblings in 2006. "My hopes are that every year we can build on our domestic violence laws."

The state began efforts to curtail the death toll in late 2014 in reaction to The Post and Courier’s Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative series “Till Death Do Us Part.” The series revealed that more than 300 women had been killed in domestic violence over a decade while state lawmakers did little to stem the bloodshed. 

After the series' publication, state lawmakers enacted sweeping changes to the state's domestic violence laws in June 2015. Those laws included harsher punishments related to the degree of violence involved and the loss of gun ownership rights for those convicted of domestic abuse.

They only began to go into effect during 2015, the year when homicide data for the new report was collected. Then-Gov. Nikki Haley also appointed a statewide task force to study domestic violence deaths.

Other more recent changes — hiring and training additional prosecutors, public defenders and specialized probation officers — also hadn't taken effect yet in 2015. 

"I hope that with what we're doing, we will see dramatic changes ahead," said Bryan Stirling, director of the state Department of Corrections who chairs a subcommittee of the task force. "But cultural changes aren't something you can flip a switch on. It takes time."

Rainey, who works through a nonprofit he founded called M.A.D. USA, agreed. He speaks to students in local schools to help them recognize signs of potentially dangerous relationships. 

"I grew up with it in the home but never had anyone outside the home talk to me about it," Rainey said. He predicted that in several more years the state will "see a considerable drop" in deaths if current efforts continue. 

The rate of men killing women ticked up slightly nationwide in 2015, as it did in South Carolina. In the Palmetto State, men killed 46 women in 2015.

That is 1.83 women per 100,000, above the national average of 1.12. It also marks an increase from 1.73 per 100,000 in 2014.

As in previous years, firearms remained the weapon of choice. Men killed 53 percent of the victims with guns, the report says.

 A ban on firearms for those convicted of even misdemeanor domestic violence was among reforms South Carolina lawmakers adopted.

However, the state remains awash in guns readily available without background checks, and the Republican-controlled General Assembly has shown little interest in curtailing that, said Sara Barber, executive director of the S.C. Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault.

"We're in a horrific place with firearms. If we want to lower the rate, we have to address firearms in the hands of violent people," Barber said. 

Women and girls still see high-profile abusers get off or face light sentences, said Tosha Connors, executive director of My Sister's House, which runs a local shelter for abused women.

She pointed to former state Rep. Chris Corley, who was sentenced last month to six years in prison suspended to five years of probation after he pleaded guilty to first-degree domestic violence for beating his wife and threatening to kill her in front of their children.

Connors asked: "Does that really sound like a state that is tough on domestic violence?"  

Contact Jennifer Hawes at (843) 937-5563 or follow her on Twitter @jenberryhawes.

Jennifer Berry Hawes is a member of the Watchdog and Public Service team who worked on the newspaper's Pulitzer-Prize winning investigation, "Till Death Do Us Part."