AIKEN - Brenda Brisbin didn't spend her Valentine's Day gazing upon a bright bouquet of flowers or gushing over a box of chocolates.
Instead, the 51-year-old Virginia native stood in an Aiken County courtroom and calmly coaxed out the testimony of a young teen girl who said her father molested her.
"That was a tough case," Ms. Brisbin recalled. "We had no physical evidence."
She wasn't able to give jurors any concrete proof, but after only an hour of deliberations they put another conviction in Ms. Brisbin's win column.
Her overall winning streak started 5 years ago, after she chucked a career as a pediatric nurse to prosecute child molesters.
Ms. Brisbin estimates that she has convicted 200 child molesters through trials or guilty pleas since joining the Aiken County solicitor's office in 2000.
It's been hard but worthwhile, she said.
"It's great when you get a child molester locked up," she said. "Not only is it validation for the victim, who needs that to start the healing process, but it's also getting a child molester off the streets so he can't keep doing it."
Ms. Brisbin is reluctant to talk about her personal life - she says she's divorced but doesn't want information about her two daughters to become public because of her job. She does say she's dating.
She grew up on a farm in Southeast Virginia with four brothers and one sister, and her mother died when she was 2 years old.
Now, she says, her big family is scattered around the country.
Her sister and brother-in-law, however, teach at the University of South Carolina Aiken.
That's how she ended up here, she said.
Before moving to Aiken, she earned a biology degree from the University of Richmond and a nursing degree from the Medical College of Virginia.
Her nursing career included stints at the Medical College of Virginia and Medical College of Georgia Hospital, and she also did stints at Aiken Regional Medical Centers, the South Carolina Department of Environmental Control and University Hospital.
She saw a lot of child abuse cases as a pediatric nurse, she said. But despite her love of children and desire to help, she called the job "frustrating and stressful."
A change was needed. She wanted a job where she could "make more of a difference."
So at 42, she enrolled at the University of South Carolina School of Law in Columbia, graduating in May 2000 and starting full time with the Aiken County Solicitor's Office in August.
She started working on child abuse cases almost immediately, and now handles most of the office's sexual assault cases.
She figured her nursing background would prepare her for what she would see.
What she might not have counted on was the power of television.
A proliferation of TV series focusing on crime has left viewers with the wrong impression about how investigations operate, what kind of technology forensic experts have at their fingertips and how much evidence perpetrators leave behind.
"I've had jurors tell me that they watch CSI and we didn't give them any evidence," she said.
It's very frustrating, she said, to lose a conviction because jurors are disillusioned about most sexual assault prosecutions.
Her boss, longtime 2nd Judicial Circuit Solicitor Barbara Morgan, said sexual assaults are "clearly the hardest" cases to prosecute for that very reason.
"They rarely have corroboration, and they often involve children," Ms. Morgan said.
But Ms. Brisbin's nursing background makes her "uniquely qualified" to prosecute accused child molesters, Ms. Morgan explained.
"She does a good job with them," Ms. Morgan said. "The difference is when you lose them, it's very hard on her. And sometimes she doesn't get the sentences she wants."
Sometimes Ms. Brisbin gets both the win and the sentence.
She has put child molesters in prison for life. Others have been sentenced to lengthy jail terms.
She said her proudest moment came four years ago, when a man accused of forcing an 11-year-old girl to perform oral sex on him decided to plead guilty - but only after Ms. Brisbin surprised the defense by calling a rebuttal witness to the stand who would have testified to seeing the abuse.
He got 28 years in prison, which is "what he deserved."
"That was my Perry Mason moment," she said, laughing. "That was a great moment."
But Ms. Brisbin admits that the job is hard - and Ms. Morgan says sometimes, she'll toss a less-stressful case to her assistant solicitor, such as forgery.
It keeps her from being burned out, Ms. Morgan said.
Ms. Brisbin, however, appears to be tireless when it comes to putting child molesters behind bars. She said she just wishes she didn't always have to put children on the stand, something South Carolina law requires.
She's joined a statewide task force that will focus on refining South Carolina law on prosecuting sexual assault cases.
Ms. Brisbin said state law should also be changed to allow prior sexual assault convictions to be admitted during trials, which is currently not allowed.
It's unfair to keep that information from jurors, she said.
"If they've done it before, they're going to do it again," she said with a sigh.
Reach Sandi Martin at (803) 648-1395, ext. 111, or email@example.com
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