When Kelly Waldron Bowles, 27, finally decided in 2002 to report years of sexual abuse at the hands of her former stepfather, a Dorchester County grand jury indicted Donald A. Baxter with second degree criminal sexual conduct with a minor and committing a lewd act upon a child.
Baxter eventually pleaded guilty to the lesser offense of aggravated assault and battery by taking indecent liberties with a minor, and was sentenced to six years in prison, reduced to two years probation.
He did no jail time.
But in the civil suit that followed eight years later, it took Berkeley County Court of Common Pleas Judge Stephanie McDonald just one day to find for the victim.
On November 15, McDonald awarded Bowles $14 million in damages on her claims of sexual assault, sexual battery, intentional infliction of emotional distress and gross negligence.
“The award cannot replace the childhood and innocence that Kelly lost,” said her attorney, Joseph P. Griffith Jr. of Charleston. “Kelly suffered unimaginable trauma during her youth, and she still suffers the adverse consequences of her stepfather’s despicable acts. But I’m proud of her for standing up for her rights and fighting for justice. She was truly inspirational in court, and, hopefully, her courage will inspire other victims to speak out and fight against child molesters.”
McDonald’s award consisted of $7 million in past and future pain, suffering and mental anguish and $162,145 in future medical expenses, along with $7 million in punitive damages. Griffith believes it to be one of the largest verdicts for a child molestation case in South Carolina history.
As recounted in her testimony before McDonald, Bowles was barely 10 years old when Baxter began molesting and abusing her by forcing her to rub his penis, to perform oral sex, and to allow him to ejaculate on her stomach and fondle her breasts and her vaginal area. He also beat her severely, causing cuts and bruises that Bowles tried to cover up with clothing and make-up, and threatened to kill her, her mother and her sister.
According to Griffith, Baxter denied ever sexually abusing Bowles and claimed that, with respect to his guilty pleas, he did not understand “taking indecent liberties” to have any sexual connotation. But Baxter made a number of misrepresentations on the stand, Griffith said, and the court expressly found his testimony to be not credible.
Baxter’s attorney, James B. Jackson of Santee, did not return a call for comment.
Griffith and Charleston attorney Jerry N. Theos, who assisted with the case, decided on a bench rather than a jury trial, an unusual tact for a tort case. “This case was never about money,” Griffith said. “We suspected there’d be little likelihood of recovering a huge verdict anyway,” he added. “We were confident about liability. We felt it would be less traumatic for Kelly, and easier for us to explain our case to a judge than to a jury. And we just wanted the judge to send a message.”
The trial took one day. All the documentary evidence – the guilty pleas, medical records, and the testimony of Bowles’ treating physician were entered by stipulation. Only Bowles and Baxter testified. And before releasing counsel and the parties for the day, McDonald ruled from the bench, finding in plaintiff’s favor on liability.
Griffith, a father of four, says the case was a life-changing experience. “What Kelly went through as a child is just such a nightmare for so many,” he said. “And to watch her go through the trial, being forced to relive horrible experiences, it made me realize why so few people come forward and go through the process.”
“Kelly was extremely credible,” Griffith said. “She was determined to see the case through. There were times when she became unsure, and I offered to drop the case, but she wanted to show other victims that they can survive and fight back when sexual abuse occurs.
“And she wanted the rest of us to remember this: Silence kills all victims in these types of cases.”
Type of Action: Sexual assault, sexual battery, breach of fiduciary duty, intentional infliction of emotional distress/outrage, gross negligence
Injuries Alleged: Physical and mental injuries arising from sexual molestation of a minor
Name of Case: Kelly Waldron Bowles v. Donald Baxter
Court: Berkeley County Court of Common Pleas
Case #: 2008CP-08-3509
Tried Before: Judge
Name of Judge: Stephanie McDonald
Verdict or Settlement?: Verdict
Date of Verdict or Settlement: 11-15-2011
Attorneys for the plaintiff: Joseph P. Griffith Jr., Charleston; Jerry N. Theos, Charleston
Attorney for the defendant: James B. Jackson, Santee