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My Turn: Survivors of sexual assault deserve justice

  • A sexual assault evidence collection kit is checked in by a forensic analyst at the Houston Forensic Science Center last year. AP file



For the Monitor
Thursday, April 28, 2016

Amanda Nguyen was in her early 20s when she was sexually assaulted. The trauma of the attack was compounded by the emotional trauma of a legal system that put needless obstacles in her path as a survivor seeking justice. She had to fight repeated battles to prevent her rape kit (the DNA evidence gathered from a forensic exam) from being destroyed, and she persevered through a grueling criminal justice process.

I was deeply moved by Amanda’s experience. Earlier this year, with invaluable counsel from Amanda as well as the New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, I introduced the Sexual Assault Survivors’ Rights Act to empower survivors to be informed, fairly treated participants throughout the criminal justice process.

Since then, there has been a groundswell of nationwide support for the rights set forth in my legislation, including more than 90,000 people signing a petition urging Congress to act.

On April 14 – appropriately, during Sexual Assault Awareness Month – the Senate Judiciary Committee unanimously passed my legislation. There are promising signs that the full Senate could pass the legislation in the weeks ahead.

Currently, many sexual assault survivors feel intimidated by the legal process and choose not to go forward. This is one reason why sexual assault is among the most under-reported and unpunished crimes nationwide, with nearly 70 percent of attacks not reported.

Many survivors who initially file charges become frustrated by the legal obstacle course and give up before their cases are resolved – or their cases simply slip through the cracks.

Our state has come a long way in recognizing the dignity and rights of sexual assault survivors.

As recently as the 1970s, a senior Granite State elected official asserted that “feminism causes battering.” It wasn’t until 1981 that the Legislature repealed the spousal exception to the state’s sexual assault statute.

Attitudes began to change dramatically in 1993, following a particularly brutal domestic violence case, when Gov. Stephen Merrill created the New Hampshire Governor’s Commission on Domestic and Sexual Violence.

In 1998, as governor, I expanded the panel’s purview to include sexual assault. Today, New Hampshire is recognized for its progressive approaches to the treatment and care of sexual assault survivors.

For example, in the Granite State, almost all rape kits are analyzed at the state crime lab within 90 days; in many other states, tens of thousands of rape kits have been sitting for years – untested – in police evidence rooms. However, like most states, New Hampshire still does not have a codified list of rights to address unique issues faced by sexual assault survivors.

The rights set forth in my legislation would apply only in federal cases. But we know from experience that when Congress makes long-overdue reforms to federal statutes, this often serves as a model and catalyst for states to improve their own laws. Already, Minnesota lawmakers are working on new legislation to create a code of survivors’ rights modeled on my bill.

The Crime Victims’ Rights Act of 2004 greatly improved the treatment of all crime victims, spelling out a list of victims’ rights in the federal criminal code. But sexual assault survivors still face a daunting patchwork of laws from state to state.

Without a clear, consistent set of rights articulated in the law, it’s difficult for even the best law enforcement professionals to ensure that survivors receive justice.

What’s needed is a standardized, transparent process that reassures survivors that they will be supported and protected as they pursue justice.

The legislative provisions I am advancing would establish fair procedures with regard to rape kits, including: the right not to be charged any fees related to the forensic medical examination; the right to have sexual assault evidence preserved for the entire statute of limitations period; the right to be informed of the results of these medical exams; and the right to written notice prior to destruction of a rape kit.

These and other rights set forth in my legislation are basic and essential protections that all survivors ought to have, regardless of where they live.

I respect the great courage of Amanda and other survivors who choose to come forward. But something is wrong if it takes great courage for a survivor of sexual assault to win simple justice.

Bear in mind, too, that violent crimes are committed not only against the victims, but also against society; these crimes instill fear and distrust within a community. We all have a profound interest in bringing perpetrators of sexual assault to justice.

Currently, inadequate laws work against survivors, law enforcement and prosecutors – serving only the perpetrators who too often remain at large. It’s time for a reformed process that ends the silence surrounding sexual assault, brings it out of the shadows and gives survivors a fair shot at justice.

(Jeanne Shaheen is New Hampshire’s senior U.S. senator.)