Leaders of the women's caucus in the Maryland General Assembly have introduced legislation that would allow the prosecution of a husband who rapes his wife after the couple has taken formal steps to end their marriage.

The legislation does not go as far as a rape bill pushed by the women's caucus last session but killed by the powerful House Judiciary Committee.

"That bill was defeated last year (because it) was too liberal," said Sen. Rosalie Abrams, the Democratic majority leader from Baltimore and sponsor of this year's bill.

Last year's bill would have allowed a husband to be prosecuted for rape, as long as the couple was "living apart," according to Abrams. This raised the fear that a woman might use the rape charge as a threat to gain a more favorable property settlement from her estranged husband, Abrams said.

The new measure, however, would allow a rape prosecution only when a written separation and property settlement has been signed by both spouses.

Del. Lorraine Sheehan (D-Prince George's), who is sponsoring the bill in the House, said the new proposal is "very limited," and though it will be "tough to move," she thinks it has a better chance than last year's measure.

Under current Maryland law, a husband is virtually immune from the charge of rape. He may be prosecuted only if he and his wife are divorced or if they have what is known as a partial divorce. This is a court-sanctioned divorce, which legally separates the couple and settles all property questions, but does not totally dissolve the marriage.

Abrams and Sheehan also have introduced three other bills which they say offer "fine tuning" to the Maryland rape laws that were overhauled in 1976.

These would:

Abolish a jury instruction, a remnant of 16th century common law, which allows a judge to tell jurors deliberating over a rape case that "the charge of rape is one which, generally speaking, is easily made, and once made, difficult to disprove." The instruction, seldom used by judges, makes a rape charge more difficult to prove than most other criminal acts, according to the sponsors.

Allow prosecutors to submit medical evidence of rape at a trial without the testimony of a doctor or other hospital personnel. This is done to encourage doctors and hospitals to treat rape victims, according to the sponsors.

Liberalize the program that allows the state to pay for medical tests done to establish evidence of rape. Currently, the state sometimes attempts to collect these payments from a victim's medical insurer, making victims wary that their confidentiality may be breached.