- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 1, 2005

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - A bill that would toughen domestic-violence penalties in South Carolina appeared to be dead — until a legislator asked why abused women return to violent relationships.

Now, after an outcry by feminist groups, the proposal is moving so quickly through the legislature that some elected officials are trying to put the brakes on it, and the bill’s original sponsor has withdrawn her support.

The issue caught fire after Republican state Rep. John Graham Altman was asked to explain why the bill had died in a subcommittee.

“I do not understand why women continue to go back around men who abuse them,” Mr. Altman told Columbia television station WIS. “I’ve asked women that, and they all tell me the same answer, ‘John Graham, you don’t understand.’ And I say, ‘You’re right, I don’t understand.’”

Mr. Altman later apologized, but his comments infuriated feminists nationwide. House leaders seized the opportunity to revive the legislation on a fast track.

Most of the momentum “is based on emotion and real interest in proving to the world that the South Carolina legislature does care about protecting battered women,” said state Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, a Democrat who introduced the bill.

The proposal would increase fines for some domestic-violence offenses and require that a third offense be prosecuted as a felony rather than a misdemeanor. The bill would not affect penalties for domestic violence involving serious injury, threat of death or the use of weapons, which are punishable by up to 10 years in prison.

The bill has picked up new sponsors, including Mr. Altman, but Mrs. Cobb-Hunter withdrew her support, complaining about Republicans taking marquee roles as co-sponsors — an effort she said was aimed at rehabilitating the Republican Party’s image.

“I am not going to be a part of a Republican whitewash. I am not going to be part of an effort to clean up the Republican caucus problem,” Mrs. Cobb-Hunter said.

Some lawmakers are concerned the momentum could do more harm than good.

State Rep. Todd Rutherford and a handful of fellow Democrats say the bill goes too far, too fast. He hopes to address the problems with a few amendments this week.

Mr. Rutherford is concerned the bill takes flexibility away from judges and could clog court dockets if defendants facing tougher sentences opt for trials instead of pleading guilty.

Delays usually work in the defendant’s favor, he said, because victims are less likely to help prosecutors the longer it takes for the case to get to trial.

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