COLUMBIA — State Sen. Vincent Sheheen’s recent focus of winning women voters in his gubernatorial campaign includes a pitch about strengthening South Carolina’s criminal domestic violence laws.
“We want to send a strong message to men who are batterers that we’re not going to put up with it,” Sheheen told a small gathering of women supporters in Columbia as part of a statewide tour this month. “We’re coming after them.”
As an attorney, however, the Camden Democrat represented at least three men charged with criminal domestic violence of high and aggravated nature since 2001.
• David Engram punched his girlfriend in the face and then attempted to load a shotgun while threatening to kill her, according to court documents.
• Alex Robinson pulled his girlfriend out of bed and forced her into his truck.
• James Salmond yanked his wife’s hair and bit her several times.
Two of the men pleaded guilty to domestic violence charges. The third pleaded guilty to an assault charge. Only Robinson, who had a lengthy previous criminal record, served jailed time, legal documents show. Salmond and Engram received suspended sentences and were placed on probation.
One of the basic tenets of the U.S. justice system is that defendants are entitled to legal representation. But Republican Gov. Nikki Haley’s re-election campaign sees hypocrisy in Democrat Sheheen’s current courting of women on the domestic violence issue and the Camden lawyer’s previous representation of accused abusers.
“Vince Sheheen has every right to make money as a trial lawyer who puts back on the streets some of the most violent and horrendous criminals in our state – people who have attacked South Carolina’s ... women,” said Rob Godfrey, a spokesman for Haley’s November re-election campaign versus Sheheen. “[M]ost South Carolinians would be shocked to learn that a candidate for governor would choose to do that.”
Sheheen said representing different types of clients gives him a real-world perspective needed in politics.
“I see in real life how, most often, women are the victims of an attitude in South Carolina ... that it’s something to be taken lightly when there’s abuse,” he said in an interview. “I think that people aren’t stupid, and they know that lawyers represent people who are abused [and] people who are accused of crimes.”
An influential state victim’s rights advocate said she accepts that attorneys elected to the Legislature have to balance their political and legal careers.
“I would not want to question Mr. Sheheen’s ethics on this,” said Laura Hudson, executive director of the S.C. Crime Victims’ Council. “Probably defending some of these people gives him a unique and helpful insight. Whether he’s able to divide that, that’s a question for him.”
Changing the message
Sheheen is trying to use women’s issues to win voters in his second race against the state’s first female governor. Sheheen lost the 2010 governor’s race to Haley by 4.5 percentage points.
This month, the Democrat mentioned at the women’s gathering in Columbia how Haley vetoed money to help pay for rape crisis centers in 2012, calling the centers “special interests” in a Facebook post.
“It’s one thing to have a woman governor. It’s another thing to have a governor who supports women,” Sheheen told supporters.
At the time of her veto, Haley’s office noted the state budget included other money for sexual assault programs and increased funding to prosecute domestic violence cases. While disappointed in Haley’s veto, some victims’ advocates said they did not think Haley opposed helping rape victims.
As part of his campaign, Sheheen said he wants to increase penalties for domestic abuse.
A bill he introduced this month would extend domestic violence protection to victims under 18 and includes teaching abuse prevention in high schools.
“We, as a state, send the wrong messages to too many men, and we have to change this message,” Sheheen said in an interview.
Haley’s campaign called Sheheen “a massive hypocrite” with his women’s agenda.
“He’s running around the state talking about being tougher on men who beat women, yet he personally made sure that men who attacked women ... spent as little time in jail as possible,” Godfrey said, “and he did it for money.”
The plea deals
Sheheen said criminal work makes up a small fraction of his legal practice, adding that he has not worked a major criminal case in about five years. He works mostly on civil cases, work Haley also has criticized as she has railed against the influence of “trial lawyers.”
“Any small-town lawyer is going to have represented almost any type of individual in a case,” said Sheheen, who lives in a city of 7,000 people.
Sheheen said he does not recall details of the three domestic violence cases that he defended more than a decade ago.
In the Salmond case, the 2004 plea came after negotiations between Sheheen and the solicitor’s office, according to court documents. The criminal domestic violence charge was not included in the plea agreement. No reason is included in court papers. A burglary charge also was dropped.
Salmond’s five-year sentence under the plea deal, suspended to two years of probation, was based on an assault and battery charge for striking a man with a lamp, court records show. Salmond also was ordered to take anger-management counseling.
The sentences in the other two cases, involving pleas on criminal domestic violence of a high and aggravated nature, were based on the solicitor’s recommendation and a judge’s decision, according to court documents.
Robinson received three years in prison in 2001. Engram’s three-year sentence in 2002 was suspended to a year of probation.
Criminal domestic violence of a high-and-aggravated nature, a more severe battering charge, was a misdemeanor in South Carolina before 2004. Convictions now require prison time.
Sheheen said lawmakers sometimes find themselves dealing with legislation that may be at odds with issues they support.
For example, Haley can sign or veto workplace-related legislation, even though she threatened to sue Lexington Medical Center in a dispute over a controversial job, the subject of a House ethics investigation, that she held with that hospital before she was elected governor in 2010, Sheheen said.
“Everybody brings their life experiences to government,” he said. “You take all the experiences you have in your personal life and try to channel those into your public life to do something good.”