Betty and her estranged husband were in the kitchen of their Prince George's County home one night a few months ago.As she was preparing a drink, he pulled a knife from a drawer near the sink and told her to go into the bedroom. There, he tied a belt around her neck and threatened to strangle the young woman unless she submitted to his sexual demands.
To Betty, there were only three words to describe what happened to her that night. "I was raped," she told the House Judiciary Committee today. But according to the laws of Maryland, Betty's husband did not commit the criminal act of rape. He was immune from such a charge because the woman he pointed the knife at, tied the belt around and sexually assaulted was his wife.
The question of whether a husband can be prosecuted for raping his wife attracted public attention last December when Greta Rideout of Salem Ore., took her husband, John, to court on the charge that he made her commit sexual intercourse by "forcible compulsion." Although John Rideout was acquitted and the couple reunited after the trial, their case reverberated throughout the country.
John Pica Jr., a freshman member of the Maryland House of Delegates, read about the Rideout case in the national magazines, examined the state laws on the subject, found several women who told stories similar to Betty's, and drafted a bill that would allow a husband to be prosecuted if he committed first-degree rape on his wife. First-degree rape involves the use of a deadly weapon, the infliction of serious injury or the threat of death or serious harm.
When Pica took his bill to its first hearing today before the Judiciary Committee, he was accompanied by Betty, who used only her first name when testifying, dozens of women from feminist groups and a sex crimes prosecutor from Baltimore.
"Everything has its limit," Pica told the committee. "We do not allow a marital immunity when a man murders his wife. We do not allow a defendant spouse to cry 'immunity' when the partner is sliced by a knife, or shot by a gun -- when she is burned, bludgeoned or tortured. We can no longer tolerate a relationship where a knife is pressed to a wife's throat demanding intercourse. The husband then has stepped over the limit, he has gone beyond his immunity privileges. He is now a criminal."
Pica and other supporters of the bill stressed that the measure was different from the Oregon law under which John Rideout was prosecuted and eventually acquitted. The Oregon law broadly defines marital rape as sexual intercourse brought on by "forcible compulsion." Pica's bill is more precise, saying that a husband can be prosecuted for first-degree rape.
"I ask that the committee not be blinded by the Rideout case in Oregon," Pica said. "John Rideout could never be convicted of first-degree rape in Maryland under the violent provisions the law here requires."
There was conflicting testimony during the Rideout trial as to how much force the husband used before having intercourse with his wife. Several jurors interviewed after the trial said they were not convinced beyond a resonable doubt that Greta Rideout's version of the story was correct.
Senate Majority Leader Rosalie Abrams (D-Baltimore), who testified for Pica's bill today on behalf of the women's caucus in the legislature, said she was disturbed by the Oregon trial. "Greta Rideout made a mockery of the Oregon law," Abrams said. "By doing that she certainly set the women's movement back. Her purpose was perhaps to sell books, to sell speeches around the country. But I would hope the prosecutors of Maryland would not proceed with a case like that."
Throughout today's hearing, male members of the Judiciary Committee constantly referred to the Rideout case. Several delegates said they feared that women would use the law for publicity reasons or to force a reconciliation with their husbands, as they claimed Greta Rideout did.
"I don't want to see another victim like Mrs. Rideout's husband," said Del. Patrick L. McDonough (D-Baltimore).
Edwin Wenck, an assistant state's attorney in Baltimore who heads that city's sex offense task force, responded that prosecutors are becoming more adept at determining the facts in a rape charge, but added: "It's inherently difficult because of the nature of the offense; there are usually only two witnesses."
Several other committee members questioned why Pica's measure was necessary when, under current state law, a wife can charge her husband with assault if he physically forces her to have intercourse. "There is a serious difference between rape and assault," said Wenck. "And, frankly, prosecutors would like to have the rape charge available as a bargaining tool. We'd use both."
Wenck said that the Baltimore prosecutor's office would like to amend Pica's bill so that the first-degree rape charge could be applied to husbands only after they were separated from their wives. "It's very difficult from an evidentiary standpoint when they're still living together," he said.
Pica said after the hearing that he sensed the Judiciary Committee was reluctant to accept his bill in its present form. He said he would be willing to limit the measure to husbands who are separated from their wives if that were the only way he could stop the committee from killing it.