The mother of Stephen Smith, whose death on a lonely Hampton County road was ruled a homicide more than seven years after the case was closed, joined calls for criminal justice reform in South Carolina at a State House rally Tuesday.
Sandy Smith honored her son, who she remembered as smart, kind and generous, and joined seven other speakers in calling for more protections for victims in South Carolina’s judicial system.
“It’s a new chapter we’re starting,” Smith said. “For eight years we have been fighting for Stephen to get the answers in his case. I don’t know how to fix the problems that led to my son’s murder being mishandled from the beginning, but I do know that I am thankful to have so many wonderful people helping me to get justice for Stephen.”
A crowd gathered in front of the State House on a spring day to rally for the rights of victims. Among the speakers were lawmakers, advocates and the victims’ parents. As the legislative session enters its last week, they called for support for a broad range of bills and initiatives intended to fill holes in South Carolina’s judicial system.
Among the bills is a proposed law that would make sexual extortion a crime punishable by 30 years in prison, a law that would allow victims of a crime to break a lease and relocate without financial penalty and a law that would increase confidentiality protections for victims of sexual and domestic violence.
“People think these issues are isolated silos, but it’s all connected,” said Sarah Ford, the legal director at the South Carolina Victim Assistance Network.
“I don’t want what happened to me to happen to any other family,” said state Rep. Brandon Guffie, R-York, who introduced legislation to criminalize sexual extortion after his son Gavin died by suicide after a scammer threatened to release nude pictures that he’d sent.
Rep. Joe White, R-Newberry, called for changes to the Judicial Merit Selection Commission, which screens candidates for judgeships before they are voted on by the General Assembly.
“We’re the only state in America that elects judges this way, which tells us that we aren’t doing it right,” White said.
The election of judges has drawn fresh scrutiny since the release of Jeriod Price, a convicted murderer released 19 years into his 35-year sentence following a secret deal between prosecutors and his attorney in a judge’s chambers.
Many of the speakers expressed frustration with the many obstacles that continue to impede the victims of crimes despite strong laws intended to protect victims.
“South Carolina has some of the best laws in the nation for crime victims, yet every day we hear from victims whose cases have gone awry. Something has gone wrong with their system,” said Veronica Swain Kunz, the South Carolina Crime Victim Ombudsman, whose office acts as a liaison between victims and the criminal justice system. She urged victims who believed that they weren’t being served by the criminal justice system to contact her office.
Karl Stoller, whose daughter died by suicide after alleging that she was raped by Bowen Turner, expressed his rage at how well-connected defendants are treated differently in South Carolina’s close knit judicial system.
“I watched the good ol’ boy start its engines and work its magic,” Stoller said. “I watched a system... aid in destroying our child’s life.”
The charge against Turner in the Dallas Stoller case was dropped after her death. Turner later received five years probation after being charged with sexually assaulting another woman.
The families of other victims described obstacles they faced. Shannon Nix, whose son Damion Greene was killed in 2015, described her disbelief that solicitors dropped charges in her son’s case because after seven years two of the key eyewitnesses had died.
Timely investigations and trials should be part of a victim-first philosophy, Eric Bland, the Smith family’s lawyer, told The State. Stephen Smith’s death was initially ruled an accident in 2015. In March, the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division took the unusual step of publicly confirming that Smith’s death was being investigated as a homicide.
“Our victim’s rights and laws don’t matter unless they are enforced, unless we demand them,” Ford told The State.