Live 5 Investigates: More than half of domestic violence offenders get lesser charges

VIDEO: Lesser sentences in half of domestic violence cases

CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) -A Live 5 Investigation analyzing state court data shows more than half of domestic violence offenders were sentenced to a lesser charge than they originally faced.

In some regions, as many as 70% of cases were sentenced at lesser charges.

And that’s only the cases that are prosecuted; 53% of domestic violence charges weren’t sentenced at all. Most of those were dismissed in court.

South Carolina women are more likely to be killed by men than almost anywhere else in the United States. We are sixth in the nation for those type crimes.

Tennille Grant’s daughter Cey’lon remembers her mom’s strength more than anything. “A few years ago, we were homeless. Sometimes we didn’t have food… She was doing things she didn’t want to do to get the money but was like, ‘I gotta get this because of my kids.’”

Over the years, Cey’lon said her mom worked hard for a good life and got a job at the Charleston airport. She often even walked to work every day. All to provide for her children, even when they were older. “Her life revolved around us,” Cey’lon said.

Now Ceylon’s life revolves around Nya, her daughter, who turns one year old in just a few days.

“In the hospital when I first had her, all I could do was cry. This was a moment I’m supposed to experience with my mom,” Cey’lon remembered.

But her mom wasn’t there. Last April, just a month before her first grandbaby was born, Tennille was murdered. Police say Terry Kelly stabbed her repeatedly.

“My mama told him to leave her alone,” Cey’lon said. “She didn’t want a relationship. He couldn’t accept the fact that she didn’t want to be with him no more… He couldn’t leave her alone.”

Tennille’s three kids worried constantly about her safety when she was still alive; Kelly had been arrested before for Criminal Domestic Violence in 2013. He was also arrested for trespassing twice in 2017. The murder happened in 2018.

“We don’t do enough,” said Dr. Kathy Gill-Hopple, who leads MUSC’s Clinical Forensics Program. “Last year we had 60 some individuals in the state die from domestic violence related homicides. That is too many. Those are just the ones we know about.”

This database Live 5 obtained from the South Carolina Court Administrator details nearly 25,000 domestic violence cases disposed over five years.

Our analysis showed out more than half, 53% of cases, were never sentenced at all. Most were dismissed.

Of the 11,716 that were sentenced, half (50.4%) of the offenders got a lesser charge, often meaning there was a plea deal.

“The whole process sometimes is very disheartening for the victims,” said Kim Parsons, Deputy Director at the Georgetown Family Justice Center. “They think, okay I finally got the courage to say I’m gonna press charges this time. Then nothing happens. That sends a message to the perpetrator, ‘Well, I didn’t really get in trouble so it’s insignificant at this point.’ And that’s how the client sometimes feels. Very insignificant in these situations.”

Vicki Bourus is the Director of the Georgetown Family Justice Center. She’s worked in the business more than 30 years and is set to retire in a few weeks.

“We know because we work in this field that there’s a lot of holes in the safety net,” said Bourus.

In Bourus’ experience, prosecutors are hesitant to move cases forward when a victim decides not to testify. She said it’s called victimless prosecution and that solicitors can do it, but it’s not easy.

“The outcome of the trial really depends on how much work and how much effort is put into the investigation, so the solicitor has something to push forward to prosecution without the victim being there.”

And that’s why police work is essential.

“It is the most dangerous call for service we go to. Period.” Detective Doug Heffner works exclusively with domestic violence cases at the Charleston County Sheriff’s Office.

They have victim advocates and are training officers to ask questions that show a victim’s risk for homicide. It’s often called a “lethality review.”

Forensic nurses like Kathy Gill-Hopple have the same pressure. Recording what happened now – could make or break a court case later.

“For instance with strangulation. Sometimes there are no obvious injuries,” Dr. Hopple says. "There may not be marks around the neck. There may not be bruising. But that doesn’t mean strangulation didn’t occur. And that is serious threat to life.

But then it’s up to solicitors and judges to take charges seriously.

Our numbers show 67.8% of all guilty cases that were originally charged as a felony ended up sentenced as a misdemeanor.

Statewide numbers included 1,355 charges for domestic violence of a high and aggravated nature; which the highest domestic violence charge in our state.

Yet Only 10% of cases were sentenced at that same level.

More than 800 were plead down to misdemeanors.

If you or someone you know is facing physical, mental or emotional abuse from a domestic or intimate partner, consult this map and list of agencies throughout the state who can offer help.

The South Carolina Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault (SCCADVASA) works with non-profit member organizations that provide direct services to survivors of domestic violence and/or sexual assault.

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