A bill that would dramatically revamp Virginia's rape and sexual assault laws was approved by a House of Delegates committee today and legislators said the bill appears to be on its way toward passage by the General Assembly.
The measure is the product of two years of work by a special task force and got the support of all but one committee member despite opposition raised by the Commonwealth's Attorneys Association.
"The crime of rape is under-reported, and those who commit it are under-arrested and under-convicted," said Sen. Joseph V. Gartlan Jr. (D-Fairfax), the bill's chief sponsor. "This bill will eliminate the burden of establishing that the rape occurred against the will of the victim and put the emphasis on the force used by the assailant."
Gartlan said that under present state statutes, six out of 10 adults arrested as rape suspects "walk away" free because disproportionate emphasis is placed on proving beyond a reasonable doubt that the victim did not consent.
Discussing what he said was "the reality of prosecution," Gartlan told the committee of one Alexandria rape case in which the victim "was dragged by her hair into the woods" and beaten and raped until her screams awakened nearby residents.
But when the case came to court, he said, the defendant told the jury the woman enticed him into the woods and he had to beat her "to keep her quiet because she was drunk. They acquitted him of rape, found him guilty of assault and battery and fined him $600."
The committee raised numerous questions about the opposing testimony of Fairfax Commonwealth's Attorney Robert F. Horan, who had testified against the bill and offered a substitute measure drafted by the association. Horan had argued that most of the current sexual assault laws work well and warned that Gartlan's bill would be too sweeping a change for the courts.
Under encouragement from Majority Leader A. L. Philpott (D-Henry), however, who helped draft amendments to the Gartlan bill, the committee chose the task force's work over the milder measure proposed by Horan.
Philpott's support, is expected to enhance the bill's chances for passage in the House. The Senate is also expected to support the measure since its members approved a much stronger version of the bill last year.
The proposed legislation divides sexual assault into four different categories, depending upon whether the attack involved intercourse or other sexual acts and the amount and type of force used. Penalties range from one year to life in prison.
Attempting to shift the emphasis of the law from sex to violence, the bill treats homosexual assault as severely as other rape cases. It also stipulates that the testimony of the victim alone can be sufficient for conviction in rape cases and severely limits the use of information about the victim's past sexual life.