A rape victim told a panel of the Virginia State Crime Commission Thursday night that courtroom questions about a rape victim's moral character and past sexual life strip women of their dignity and fail to address the violent nature of rape.
Such questions, said the 29-year-old rape victim who has become a rape counselor, are "equivalent to asking a bank if it tempted a robber to rob it. It is like saying that a bank that has been robbed before is, therefore, theft-prone."
The woman, raped in her dormitory at a college in New York nine years ago, spoke at a public hearing in Fairfax County in support of a proposed Virginia law that would shift the focus in rape prosecutions away from the victim and more on the accused rapist.
The law, according to its sponsors, would force juries to concentrate on the amount of force used by the accused rapist rather than on how vigorously the victim fought to resist the assault.
State Sen. Stanley C. Walker (D-Norfolk), chairman of the state crime commission, said the proposed law is the most important issue the crime commission has ever addressed.
Walker said the bill, which passed the Virginia Senate this spring and was held over for next year in a House of Delegate's committee, was "laughed at across the state" when first introduced, but it is needed "to bring our rape laws out of the 18th century."
One of those who opposed the proposed law last spring and still opposes it, Fairfax Commonwealth's Attorney Robert F. Horan Jr., said Thursday night the law "is a bonanza for defense attorneys defending rapists."
Horan, who has considerable influence with the Virginia General Assembly on legal matters, said he has no trouble prosecuting rapists under the existing law.
Reffering to the six-page-long bill, Horan said that "throwing a whole bunch of new words into the law will create 20 years of legal chaos."
Most of the 60 people who showed up Thursday night at Robinson High School favored the proposed law, which according to one of its sponsors, Sen. Joseph V. Gartlan Jr. (D-Fairfax), would "prevent the second attack on the rape victim which the rape trial so often becomes."
The bill, under which penalties for assaults on men would be as severe as they are for assaults on women, would divide sexual assault into four categories, depending on whether an attack involved sex or so-called intimate contact.
The new law would make the victim's past sexual conduct admissible in court only after a closed hearing proves it relevant.
The chances of the rape bill getting through the House Courts of Justice Committee next year are not good, according to Del. Richard Hobson (D-Alexandria), a member of the committee.