Senate committee unveils new sexual assault law

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(Host) Senate Democratic leaders say one of their early priorities in 2009 will be passing a new sexual assault law.

The proposed bill would allow prosecutors to seek a mandatory minimum sentence of 25 years in jail if the victim is less than 16 years old.

VPR’s Bob Kinzel reports.

(Kinzel) The proposed legislation is the culmination of several months of hearings held by the Senate Judiciary Committee following the death of 12 year old Brooke Bennett this summer. Her uncle, Michael Jacques, has been charged with her murder.

The legislation creates a new crime: aggravated sexual assault when the victim is under 16 years old. It contains 34 different recommendations, including a mandatory minimum sentence of 25 years in jail, and the full funding of special investigative units throughout the state.

Senate Judiciary Chairman Dick Sears says the bill needs to be viewed as a total package.

(Sears) “No one law will prevent family violence or violence against children. Thirty-four pieces of this bill altogether will go a long way to help us prevent violence against children."

(Kinzel) Windsor Senator John Campbell says the proposal allows prosecutors to seek the 25-year mandatory minimum sentence when they think they have a strong case and a victim who’s willing to testify in court. He says it gives prosecutors an option that they don’t currently have.

(Campbell) “For those cases where there is strong evidence and where you see that the witness will in fact come through and will be able to make it through the entire trial, we have this now where they will be able to be sentenced to 25 years to life."

(Kinzel) The bill also eliminates pretrial depositions in sexual assault cases. Campbell says Vermont is one of only four states that allow defense attorneys to interrogate victims prior to a trial.

(Campbell) “By putting a child through that grilling by an attorney, not only just by the attorney but having the suspect within two feet of them, that’s unacceptable. The defense attorneys, they can get their turn. They have a right to confrontation that can be done at trial."

(Kinzel) The Vermont Network Against Domestic and Sexual Violence has opposed efforts to adopt a strict 25-year mandatory minimum sentence. Sarah Kenney is the public policy coordinator for the group. She says her organization can support this new approach:

(Kenney) “We actually think this is a really great approach. It’s a very reasonable compromise. It gives prosecutors another tool when they’re looking at a case, but it doesn’t put unnecessary pressure on victims and doesn’t force cases to trial when they don’t need to."

(Kinzel) Kenney says that in more than 90% of sexual assault cases the victim knows the offender. She’s says it’s critical that the bill calls for public education and prevention programs that reflect this reality.

(Kenney) “Traditionally, prevention efforts have really focused on this notion of `stranger danger,’ of scary people jumping out of the bushes. And they just don’t take into account that it’s probably going to be somebody that you know and maybe love and trust who’s going to be doing this to you and where to go with that and with whom you can talk how to find a trusted adult."

(Kinzel) Senate leaders say they hope to pass this legislation in the first two weeks of the new session and they’re confident it will be supported in the House.

For VPR News I’m Bob Kinzel in Montpelier.

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