The proposed revamping of Virginia's sexual assault laws has caused some tortuous deliberations in the General Assembly, and supporters of the revisions have been stymied in attempts to reach the kind of compromise that traditionally resolves other impasses in Richmond.
"It's been hard to reach a consensus on what kind of bill to have," State Sen. Frederick C. Boucher (D-Abingdon) told an Arlington audience recently. "So many things have been plugged in or pulled out."
Boucher, the bill's chief sponsor in the 1980 General Assembly, outlined the four-year legislative history of the bill at a meeting last week. The meeting was sponsored by two groups very much interested in the measure's fate -- the Arlington Commission on the Status of Women and the Arlington Rape Victim Companion Service.
The measure is designed to encourage victims to report and insist on prosecution of rape and sexual assault without fear of public embarrassment. Still regarded by the FBI as the most under-reported crime in the nation, reported sexual assaults increased 66 percent between 1969 and 1978.
Boucher's original bill would have established a series of graduated penalties for different types of assault, ranging from unwelcomed intimate touching to rape. It also would have eliminated the requirement that victims prove they physically resisted an attack and would have prohibited defense attorneys from presenting evidence about a victim's past sexual activity.
However, amendments by House and Senate committees eliminated the graduated penalty system and gave judges the power to decide if victim's "general reputation" was germane to a case. Boucher said he hopes both amendments eventually will be defeated.
"We want to shift the emphasis from the victim to the amount of force used by the assailant," he said. "This is a crime of violence, not sexual gratification."
Praising the support the bill has received from women's groups and from Northern Virginia legislators who cosponsored or helped draft the bill, Boucher tried to reassure his audience about the amended provisions and the bill's chances of passage.
He also noted the warm welcome he received in Arlington.
"I can't find a group this large at home that is interested in the problems of sexual assault reform," said Boucher, who practices law in the rural mountains of of southwest Virginia.
Boucher, who was accompanied by Arlington State Sen. Edward M. Holland, a Democrat, said the bill's future is now up to the Courts of Justice Committee in the House of Delegates. At the legislative session this winter, the committee voted to study the measure further before reconsidering it at the General Assembly's 1981 session. To date, however, a subcommittee has not been appointed to reexamine the bill.
Even if the bill gets serious consideration by the committee, which includes many members who are openly derisive of the proposed reforms, the measure faces formidable opposition by many sheriffs and commonwealth's attorneys.
For instance, Fairfax County prosecutor Robert F. Horan has made a point of going to Richmond to testify against the bill, telling legislators that present case law would be better protection for assault victims than the proposed bill.
"My good friend Bob Horan says we're not losing cases because of the law, we're losing cases because of the facts," said Boucher. "But we'd like to see more cases coming into him."
Women, who usually are the victims of sexual assault, now find the state law "intimidating," Boucher said. "The basic intent is to get more reporting of the crime."
One problem in prosecuting assault cases, particularly rape cases, Boucher said, is that the rape penalty is now five years to life. Juries reluctant to impose that harsh a sentence, sometimes opt for acquittal instead, he said. The proposed law would provide more sentencing flexibility.
At one point in the meeting, Boucher was questioned about penalties for sexual assault among spouses. He admitted that neither the current law nor the proposed bill addresses that problem. Even if a couple is living apart, Boucher said, the law in Virginia does not allow a man or woman to prosecute a spouse for sexual assault.
Arlington police officer Dave Kelly suggested that the legislature should look into the problem. Kelly, who has given several talks in the county about rape prevention, said. "The one question that's asked as much as any other is: Can a husband rape his wife?"
The frequency of the question, Kelley suggested to Boucher, might indicate the frequency of the problem.