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Marital rape exception, violence against indigenous women among legal holes lawmakers aim to close

ST. PAUL -- Minnesota lawmakers this week are set to take up a review of the state's sexual assault and rape laws in an effort to close gaps that have caused painful repercussions for victims and survivors.

After emotional testimony Tuesday, Jan. 29, the House Public Safety and Criminal Justice Reform Committee advanced a pair of bills Tuesday that would remove an exception for charging a person with rape when it occurs with his or her spouse and set up a task force aimed at reporting violence against indigenous women in Minnesota.

And House Democrats earlier in the day said they'd name this week "Gender-based violence prevention week" as that committee considered a slate of other proposals aimed at requiring police agencies to set up policies for handling sexual assault cases, calling for a review of the sentencing guidelines for committing the crime, re-writing what it means to occupy a position of authority and dropping the statute of limitations for felony sex offenses. Another proposal would outlaw unwanted, intentional touching a person's buttocks.

The proposals come after a series from the Minneapolis Star Tribune published a series outlining areas of state law that deny justice to rape survivors in Minnesota. A report put forth last year by the Minnesota Attorney General's Work Group on Sexual Assault recommended legal changes.

Eliminating the marital rape exception

The committee on Tuesday advanced to the House Ways and Means Committee for referral a bill that would remove from state law a provision that allows for an alleged sexual offender to avoid certain charges if he or she is in a voluntary relationship with the victim.

The bill's sponsor, Rep. Zack Stephenson, DFL-Coon Rapids, said the provision is outdated and leads to unintended applications for sexual assault survivors.

“I think it’s time for our laws to match our values,” the bill's sponsor, Rep. Zack Stephenson, DFL-Coon Rapids, said.

Jenny Teeson told the committee about her ex-husband who in 2016 drugged Teeson and recorded himself performing a sex act with her in 2016 while her child lay in bed beside her. The man's lawyer had a third-degree criminal sexual conduct charge stemming from the incident dropped, citing the marital rape exception.

"This becomes one more story of a victim that has been failed," she said. "I would rather be in the victim heard, justice served category."

Understanding violence against indigenous women

The panel also passed a bill that would set up a task force aimed at studying violence and murder committed against Native American women. Bill sponsor Rep. Mary Kunesh-Podein, DFL-New Brighton, said she brought the bill after she became concerned about reported instances of violence committed against indigenous women, including against Savanna LaFontaine-Greywind. In 2017, the pregnant woman's child was torn from her womb and LaFontaine-Greywind was killed.

Mysti Babineau, an enrolled member of the Red Lake Nation, shared her stories of being raped at age nine and later kidnapped, and again raped at 20. She said her story is not rare and more needs to be done to track violence committed against Indigenous women.

"(For) 500 years we've been waiting for this," Babineau said. "It's time for justice, it's time for healing."