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Outcry in S.C. speeds domestic violence bill

COLUMBIA, S.C. -- A bill that would toughen penalties for domestic violence in South Carolina appeared to be dead -- until a state legislator raised the question of why some abused women return to violent relationships.

Now, after an outcry by women's groups, the proposal is moving so quickly through the Legislature that some elected officials are trying to put the brakes on it.

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

''I do not understand why women continue to go back around men who abuse them," Altman, a Republican, 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.' "

Altman later apologized, but his comments infuriated women around the nation. 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 Representative Gilda Cobb-Hunter, a Democrat who introduced the original bill.

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

Representative Todd Rutherford says he is concerned that the bill would take flexibility away from judges and clog court dockets if defendants facing tougher sentences opt for trials. Victims are less likely to help prosecutors the longer it takes for a case to get to trial, he said.

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