As he has each year since taking office in 2011, Attorney General Alan Wilson is preparing to mark a solemn milestone.
On Thursday, the top prosecutor takes part in the 18th annual Silent Witness ceremony. On the steps of the Statehouse, relatives, friends and advocates hold up life-sized silhouettes representing each person killed in South Carolina during the previous year as a result of domestic violence. A bell rings once for each victim.
“Everybody has to own the problem,” Wilson recently told The Associated Press. “It’s a societal problem, not just a government problem.”
October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. In September, an annual report by the Violence Police Center again ranked South Carolina worst in the nation for deadly violence against women, with a rate of 2.32 women killed per 100,000 people in 2013. That’s more than twice the national average and represents 57 known deaths, compared with 50 a year earlier, according to the study, which uses the latest data available from the FBI for crimes involving one male killing one female.
It marked South Carolina’s fourth time atop the list, where the state ranked second last year and has been in the top 10 annually for the last 18 years.
Domestic violence and gun ownership were widely discussed this year by the South Carolina Legislature, which ultimately approved a bill aimed at stemming the state’s persistently high rate. The bill signed into law Gov. Nikki Haley increases penalties, gives prosecutors more options for punishment and also bans some batterers from having guns.
Wilson has said the legislation has helped the state make progress but that more advances are needed. A taskforce has recommended more changes, like training more 911 operators, improving documentation of the crime scene and adding more shelters.
Throughout South Carolina’s 46 counties, prosecutors like Barry Barnette, solicitor for Spartanburg and Cherokee counties, say the cases are among the most emotionally difficult to handle.
Last month, Michael Lee Larson was sentenced to life in prison after pleading guilty to shooting his wife to death a day after her birthday in May 2014. Authorities say Larson called 911, confessing that he had killed Mitzi Yvonne Emery Larson. A witness reported seeing the couple argue before the shooting, and a 12-gauge shotgun was found near the woman’s body.
In preparing for trial, Barnette met with the victim’s family, who told him of a grisly discovery. In Mitzi Larson’s Bible, her adult sons said they found their mother’s handwritten record detailing each time she’d been abused by her husband, a chilling keepsake Barnette says the likes of which are all too common in such cases.
“She basically stayed with him through the abuse,” Barnette said of the couple that had been together nearly 30 years.
The cases are tricky, Barnette said, because those left behind – like the Larsons’ children – are related to both victim and defendant. Often longtime witnesses to the abuse, he said the children are dealing with conflicted emotions when it comes time for prosecution and, unless they get counseling, can unfortunately end up repeating the cycle of abuse in their own relationships.
“Kids learn from adults. This is what they think is the norm, and we have to somehow break that cycle,” he said.
In the Larsons’ case, each son asked the judge to levy a harsh sentence against his father.
“The amazing thing about them was the love they shared for their mom,” Barnette said. “This was their dad, and they stood up and asked Judge Couch for the maximum sentence.”