Deal emerging on domestic violence bill But compromise would let prosecutors plead down charges to assault, battery

Victims advocates hold a silent witness ceremony at the Statehouse to commemorate those killed by spouses, former spouses, boyfriends or girlfriends.

COLUMBIA — Behind-the-scenes negotiations appear to have broken an impasse that threatened passage of tougher domestic violence laws this year.

Lawmakers said Monday a compromise measure is expected to be debated in the state House later this week that would bar batterers from possessing guns, strengthen penalties and require students to be taught about domestic violence awareness and prevention.

While all of that was sought by victims advocates, it still could somewhat disappoint those hoping for a stronger measure because it would allow prosecutors to plead down domestic violence charges to assault and battery. An assault rather than a domestic violence conviction would not necessarily strip an offender of his or her right to have a firearm. It also places control of treatment programs under local prosecutors rather than a state agency. Advocates say local officials having control over such programs would reduce statewide accountability.

With the legislative session winding down, House and Senate leaders said it was imperative to work out a deal or the Legislature would again have failed to better protect victims.

“A lot of people with very strong opinions who I never thought would budge have done just that,” said Attorney General Alan Wilson, who took part in the negotiations. “Lives are at stake here. We have laws in place on domestic violence that are just not getting it done.”

The effort was prompted by last year’s Post and Courier series “Till Death Do We Part,” that revealed more than 300 women have been killed by husbands, exes and boyfriends in the past decade while the Legislature did little to address the epidemic of domestic violence.

House Speaker Jay Lucas said he believes the compromise will pass the House. “It tends to go much further ... and understands increasing penalties alone is not sufficient to dealing with the enormity of the problem that we face in this state.”

Domestic violence reform stalled after the Senate passed a bill that primarily focused on penalties, including the gun ban, while the House passed a separate measure that stressed changing the culture of violence that perpetuated the assaults by requiring education for all students.

Advocates slammed the House’s approach as “watered down,” and senators refused to consider the House bill, insisting on tougher penalties, including allowing judges to issue lifetime orders of protection and a mandatory, lifetime gun ban for the highest-level domestic violence offenders.

The impasse threatened to derail both bills until Sen. Larry Martin, R-Pickens, said he received a call around the beginning of May from Lucas, who suggested it was time to find work together to find an acceptable compromise.

Martin agreed, informally appointing Sens. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg, and Greg Hembree, R-North Myrtle Beach, both lawyers and adept negotiators, to work with the House.

The House relied primarily on Lucas, Reps. Shannon Erickson, R-Beaufort, Greg Delleney Jr., R-Chester, Todd Rutherford, D-Columbia, and David Weeks, D-Sumter.

Martin said the compromise bill addresses longtime concerns, including being able to consider how many times a batterer has been charged, not just he severity

Martin and others emphasized that the bill represents a start. “This is not a bill to end the debate on domestic violence,” Martin said.

Laura Hudson, executive director of the S.C. Crime Victims Council, said she had not seen the compromise, but that it sounds like an improvement.

“I’m disappointed in some of the areas, but it looks like we are a whole better off than we were,” she said.

According to House staff, the compromise would:

Strip gun rights from abusers, although low-level offender could eventually get them restored. For the highest felony offense, the state would impose a mandatory lifetime gun ban. Advocates have argued for a state ban even though federal law prohibits felons and domestic violence offenders from having guns, saying it is rarely enforced by federal law enforcement officers.

The second most severe offense would carry a 10-year ban and lesser charges would include three-year gun bans. To restore gun rights, the FBI would have to agree to remove the offenders from the national gun database.

Allow prosecutors to consider whether crimes were committed in the presence of a minor or if the victim was strangled, which could carry stiffer sentences.

Allow judges to issue permanent orders of protection. Victims advocates say abusers sometimes take advantage of restraining orders having to be renewed, and try to intimidate a victim into not doing it.