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General Assembly advancing bills that would update Maryland sexual assault laws

A half-dozen bills moving through the General Assembly would update Maryland's sexual assault laws and, advocates say, make it easier for victims to secure justice.

One measure would sweep aside a centuries-old vestige of English law that requires prosecutors to prove that rape victims resisted their attackers. Another would broaden the definition of rape to include a wider of range of attacks.

And one would end Maryland's status as one of a minority of states that don't allow women to terminate the parental rights of a rapist if the assault results in pregnancy.

Several bills have passed both chambers — some unanimously — though none has yet been finalized. They could still be modified or fail.

But supporters in both the House of Delegates and the state Senate are hopeful, and say their success so far reflects broad trends, including how attitudes toward rape are changing.

Legislators were prompted in part to act by high-profile national cases — many people were outraged when Stanford University swimmer Brock Turner served three months in jail for sexually assaulting an unconscious woman. Problems were also identified locally. In Baltimore County, officials have pledged to reform the way they investigate rape after police were criticized for classifying cases as unfounded at a rate well above the national average.

Del. Aruna Miller, leader of the women's caucus, said the arrival of a new generation of legislators is helping drive attempts to change state policy.

"In previous years there weren't as many women legislators who were willing to take on issues related to this," the Montgomery County Democrat said. The newer members, she said, "are much more bold and outspoken about these issues, as we should be."

Lisae Jordan, the head of the advocacy group Maryland Coalition Against Sexual Assault, said that while she's been working on these issues for years, the current session is shaping up to have an unusually significant impact.

"It's a combination of an organic shift and some conscious strategic decisions," she said.

Gov. Larry Hogan is behind part of the push to change sexual assault laws. He supports a pair of bills, including one that has passed both chambers that would bring child sex trafficking under the definition of sexual abuse.

"The importance of preventing and prosecuting sexual assault cannot be overstated, and we are glad to see a number of bills moving through the legislature to protect Marylanders from these horrific crimes," said Hannah Marr, a spokeswoman for Hogan. "For too many years, legislation aimed at protecting victims of sexual assault has been held up for inexplicable reasons."

One measure that has cleared both the Senate and the House would get rid of a distinction between rape — defined in Maryland only as a crime involving vaginal penetration — and other kinds of serious sex offenses. The bill would mean that for the first time, legally speaking, men could be victims of rape in the state.

Sen. Will C. Smith Jr., the measure's sponsor, said he acted after constituents said they were told by police that the attack they suffered doesn't count as rape. Smith said the bill would change the legal language to be more in line with people's everyday understanding.

"We're just calling it what it is," the Montgomery County Democrat said. "It provides a little dignity to some of the victims that before would have been told they weren't raped."

Republicans and Democrats alike have given many of the bills their backing. When a bill sponsored by Miller that would provide new resources for rape victims came up for a final vote on the House floor Wednesday, Del. Kathy Szeliga, the minority whip, urged her colleagues to vote in favor.

"Great bill," she said. It passed 136-0, and is now being considered by the Senate.

Del. Meagan Simonaire, the legislature's youngest member at 26, said she has had to work to convince other Republicans to support some of the measures.

"It should be a women's issue, not a Republican issue or a Democrat issue," the Anne Arundel County Republican said.

In the House Ways and Means Committee, Simonaire was the lone Republican to vote for a bill that would require schools to teach that when it comes to consent, only "yes means yes." But she made the case for the bill in a closed-door caucus meeting, and two Republicans who voted against it at the committee stage voted for it on the House floor.

Despite the momentum many of the sexual assault bills have this year, not all have made progress.

A proposal to require investigators to test rape kits for DNA and other evidence faced opposition from law enforcement officials who questioned the cost and utility of such a move. And a bill sought by Baltimore State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby to create new the rules for using previous allegations of sexual misconduct against people on trial for rape looks unlikely to progress, despite attracting the governor's support. Supporters of the bill say it would make it easier to convict serial rapists.

The leaders of House and Senate committees that handle judicial matters have raised questions about that proposal. The chairmen often take a conservative approach to legislation that could weaken defendants' rights or create complex new kinds of court proceedings.

Del. Joseph Vallario, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said he opposed the bill dealing with prior allegations because it could open the door for allowing such information in other sorts of cases. One of the bedrock principles of the American justice system is that, with limited exceptions, defendants are only on trial for the crime they have been charged with. Vallario said linking a bill to the issue of sexual assault doesn't exempt it from close scrutiny.

The concerns of committee leaders are not insurmountable. The measure that would allow women who conceived a child as the result of a rape to end the parental rights of their attacker has long been proposed. Last year, it looked like it might finally pass before being scuttled on the last day of the legislative session.

Sen. Bobby Zirkin, chairman of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, said he's confident the bill will succeed this year.

The Baltimore County Democrat said the slate of legislation moving forward this year should give authorities many new tools to tackle sexual assault.

"The hope is when you attack it from so many different angles, you actually make a difference," he said.

iduncan@baltsun.com

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