Crime & Courts

Former S.C. lawmaker pleads guilty to felony domestic violence

'None of this was my intention,' says wife of former SC lawmaker

Heather Corley, wife of former SC Rep. Chris Corley, begged a judge not to sentence her husband to prison on a domestic violence charge Monday, Aug. 7, 2017.
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Heather Corley, wife of former SC Rep. Chris Corley, begged a judge not to sentence her husband to prison on a domestic violence charge Monday, Aug. 7, 2017.

Former S.C. lawmaker Chris Corley pleaded guilty Monday to beating his wife in their Aiken County home in December but will avoid prison as long as he completes his court-ordered probation.

Corley pleaded guilty to first-degree criminal domestic violence, a felony. Circuit Judge Jack Early sentenced Corley, 36, to six years, suspended to five years probation. That means Corely will avoid prison as long as he successfully completes his probation, which includes community service and anger-management classes.

The judge could have sentenced him to up to 10 years.

Early’s decision followed emotional testimony from Corley’s wife, Heather, who said her husband was diagnosed in January with bipolar disorder II. Monday was the couple’s 13th wedding anniversary, she said.

“None of this was my intention, for my husband to be facing prison,” she said in court. “I only wanted him to get help.”

Heather Corley said that her husband saw three doctors in the year before the assault, and that he was misdiagnosed and prescribed medications that exacerbated his behavior, which included periods of high stress and memory loss.

“He just wasn’t our Chris,” she said. “He told me several times, ‘I feel like I’m losing months of my life.’”

Prosecutors said the Dec. 26 incident was sparked by a text message Corley sent to his wife that she believed was intended for another woman. When she confronted him about it, he threw her on the bed, hit her in the head, bit her nose, grabbed the skin under her eyes and pulled it down and pulled a gun on her, prosecutors said.

Heather Corley said she tried getting the charges dropped, and was upset that the state subpoenaed the couple’s 8-year-old daughter to testify. Their oldest son was recently diagnosed with autism and bipolar disorder, she said, adding that they could not afford the school he now attends if her husband were sent to prison.

“I’m desperate to save my family and keep my family together,” she said.

Corley was charged initially with first-degree criminal domestic violence. However, a grand jury indicted him on a charge of aggravated domestic violence, for which he faced up to 20 years. In exchange for pleading to the lesser, first-degree charge, prosecutors dismissed a firearm charge.

Before sentencing Monday, Corley apologized to his family and the Aiken County residents he formerly represented as a Republican in the S.C. House. He heard for the first time Monday the 911 call made from their Graniteville home during the incident, in which his 8-year-old daughter is heard pleading, “Please stop. Just stop, Daddy. Just stop. Daddy, why are you doing this?”

“It’s a very difficult thing for a father to hear,” Corley said. “... I would beg this court for mercy in this matter, so that I can continue to be a father to my children.”

Corley was suspended from the House in early January and resigned later that month, just before House members were to vote on a resolution to expel him.

Elected in 2014, Corley was among those voting to stiffen the state’s domestic violence laws in 2015 after South Carolina ranked among the deadliest states for violence against women each year for nearly 20 years.

Corley leaving the courthouse Monday with no prison time sends the wrong message about the state’s approach to domestic violence, said Susan Selden, executive director of the Cumbee Center to Assist Abused Persons, an Aiken nonprofit dedicated to advocacy for victims of domestic violence and sexual assault.

“I really fear for this family’s safety,” she said. “I think it says to the community that South Carolina is still not willing to take a good, strict stance on domestic violence, and Aiken County is certainly not taking this seriously. You can’t just say somebody’s a good family and they’ve been good people in the community and just brush it under the rug.”

An attorney in Augusta, Ga., Corley could face suspension or disbarment by the Georgia bar pleading guilty to a felony. His attorney said he will report the conviction to the bar Tuesday.