With high-profile legal challenges swirling around the state and an election in less than a month, South Carolina’s attorney general met with some of the women of Rock Hill to talk about South Carolina’s struggles with criminal domestic violence.
Solving the problem, Alan Wilson told the Woman’s Club of Rock Hill, starts with changing what the offense is called under state law.
“You don’t say ‘criminal murder,’” Wilson said. “It’s redundant. Domestic violence should always be criminal.”
Last year, South Carolina was the No. 2 state in the nation in the number of women killed by men, after previously ranking No. 1. The General Assembly over the summer appointed a committee to study ways to strengthen laws on domestic violence, which treat a first-offense domestic violence case as a misdemeanor. Kicking a dog, Wilson said, carries a higher maximum penalty.
“I’ve seen cases where one person has seven first-offense convictions,” Wilson said, “because that’s all the prosecutor can plead it down to.”
Instead of basing the sentence on number of offenses, Wilson wants domestic violence cases classed by degree, with a third-degree offense a felony and a first-degree offense punishable by up to 20 years. Battery in front of children should boost the degree of the offense, and any two previous domestic violence convictions would automatically make the third a first-degree offense.
Protecting children in a domestic situation is crucial, Wilson said, because no law will be able to solve a deeply ingrained social problem.
“If a boy sees his father hit his mother, he’s more likely to grow up to believe hitting a woman is OK,” he said. “And a girl will believe it is normal for her to be struck by a man.”
Gay marriage battle rages
Wilson’s visit comes as his office is embroiled in a legal battle over gay marriage.
The issue has surged to prominence late in the campaign season after a flurry of events over the past week. On Oct. 6, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear several appeals of lower-court decisions knocking down gay marriage bans, including a Virginia decision that would also cover South Carolina and other neighboring states. On Friday, a federal judge in North Carolina paved the way for same-sex marriage in that state.
But Wilson has committed himself to defending South Carolina’s ban as long as possible, which he considers his duty as the state’s top lawyer.
“(If) you have an attorney representing you and your attorney hits a wall, do you want your attorney to throw up his hands and say ‘Sorry, I can’t help you’? Or do you want your attorney to exhaust every legal option until there are no options left?,” he said Monday. “I’m not opposed to anything. I’m just for the rule of law and my role under the constitution as the state’s attorney.”
A motion for an immediate ruling brought by a lesbian couple suing the state will be considered by a federal judge this week. Wilson said Monday opposing the motion isn’t a waste of taxpayer dollars because it won’t cost the attorney general’s office any extra money to pursue the case.
“There are no taxpayer funds (being spent on the gay marriage appeal),” he said. “We do this. We are the state’s law firm, and there is no outside counsel (involved). So there are no additional costs to the taxpayers.”
Wilson faces a challenge from Democratic candidate Parnell Diggs in the Nov. 4 election. Diggs has said he supports ending the fight against same-sex unions.