BEAUFORT COUNTY, S.C. (WTOC) - More than half of accused child sex predators since 2013 in South Carolina either had the charges dismissed or plead to a lesser crime. A WTOC investigation uncovered the alarming trend.
The 14th Circuit solicitor, Duffie Stone, said a lack of physical evidence is often why the charges are dropped. Stone said change is already on the way. His office recently opened a new facility that he believes is a game changer.
The data we reviewed covered 9,583 cases; 6032, or about 63 percent, were dismissed; 3,104 charges ended with a sentence; 2,897 charges were disposed through a guilty plea; only 413 cases went to trial, 35 percent ended with an acquittal.
In the 14th circuit covering Beaufort, Colleton, Jasper, Hampton, and Allendale counties, the solicitor’s office handled 354 charges in the six and a half years we reviewed; 199 were dismissed, which is a lower percentage than the statewide percentage; 115 charges ended in a guilty plea; 31 cases went to trial, 24 of which ended with an acquittal.
The solicitor provided data proving they take a higher percentage of sexual assault cases to trial compared to all other crimes. However, he does acknowledge the conviction rate is much lower.
Stone said the South Carolina data on child sexual abuse charges reflects a nationwide trend.
“Less than five percent of all sexual cases against children actually have any evidence,” Stone said. “It’s not a question of whether or not the advocate believes the child, or we believe the child. It’s a question of what type of evidence the jury is going to be able to hang their hat on in order to convict somebody.”
The solicitor opened what’s called a Family Justice Center, the first of its kind in South Carolina. The center, all in his office in Okatie, includes an exam room for sexual assault victims, a room where a forensic interviewer walks through the abuse with the victim, and another room where law enforcement and a prosecutor can watch that interview. Hopeful Horizons, the circuit’s only victims’ advocate, has an office there as well.
Stone’s office also received funding for a full-time sexual assault nurse examiner, or SANE, who also specializes in giving pediatric sexual assault tests. That allows victims to be tested in Beaufort and not in Charleston where they would’ve been tested just two months ago. Physical evidence must be collected within 72 hours, which makes this center even more valuable.
“This is to me I think a crucial first step, and it’s also something that’s just desperately needed in our entire circuit,” Stone said. “It’s not just a Beaufort County issue. This is throughout our entire circuit.”
Kristin Dubrowski is the executive director of Hopeful Horizons. She said believing a child when he or she comes forward is most important.
“They have a lot at stake, and it means a lot for them to come forward and open up about the abuse,” Dubrowski said. “It’s really important that the first people that they share that with are supportive of them.”
Being supportive and believing a child could allow authorities to get that crucial evidence. That evidence is often what makes or breaks a case. Prosecutors and advocates hope a support system and the ability to collect physical evidence quickly change the outcome of child sexual abuse in the 14th circuit.
Here’s a breakdown of the number of charges since 2013 by county in South Carolina: