A far-reaching bill to make spousal rape and marital sexual assault crimes in Virginia cleared a key Virginia Senate committee today despite a plea from one senator that the bill would "create a lot of conflict within the sanctity of the home."
The bill, which may reach the full Senate Friday, would mean that for the first time under Virginia law, marriage would be no defense against a rape charge. Two state Supreme Court rulings in recent years have raised serious doubts about when a spouse can be charged with such crimes.
The bill, which already has passed the House, would impose sentences of up to life in prison for the rape of a spouse if the couple is living apart or if the rape causes serious injury, and up to 20 years if the couple is living together.
The measure also includes provisions for court-ordered counseling and requiring spouses to report rapes or sexual assaults within 10 days.
"I think it's a major step for protecting women who are married," said Nancy Brock of Norfolk, president of Virginians Aligned Against Sexual Assault, which has lobbied intensely for the bill.
Some studies have shown that 10 to 14 percent of married women are sexually assaulted by their husbands, said Brock, a member of a legislative commission that has studied the issue for a year.
A commission review noted that in Maryland, so-called marital exemptions have been abolished for first- and second-degree sexual offenses, but not for others unless the couple is legally separated. There is no marital exemption in the District of Columbia, the report said.
House Majority Leader Thomas W. Moss Jr. (D-Norfolk), who sponsored the bill, said the measure goes further than laws in many states in protecting spouses.
Moss indicated to several supporters that he expects the full Senate to pass the bill. "This (committee) was the one I was worried about," he said.
Despite his concern, the measure passed easily by a voice vote in the Senate Courts of Justice Committee.
Sen. Daniel W. Bird Jr. (D-Wytheville), the only senator present who opposed the measure, stalled a vote on it with a series of questions, including one on the definition of "serious injury."
"Is a black eye a serious injury?" asked Bird, who suggested that wives angered by their husbands may try to invoke the law as punishment. He said he feared the measure "would create a lot of conflict within the sanctity of the home.
"I just think this is going too far," said Bird, who said he would have supported a bill that applied to couples living apart.
Sen. Wiley F. Mitchell Jr. (R-Alexandria), a member of the commission who said he initially shared Bird's views, called the bill "a reasonable approach" and said he was persuaded during public hearings when "one woman after another (testified) of having been brutalized."
Mitchell said the commission found that it is "more traumatic for a woman to be raped by her husband than a stranger . . . someone you love and have trusted." Mitchell said he believed the penalty of 20 years in prison "is not severe enough."
Sen. Johnny S. Joannou (D-Portsmouth) said it was "totally repugnant . . . to try to use marriage as a shield" against prosecution."