Law change will only hurt victims

A false accusation is a terrible burden for an innocent individual to carry, but nowhere near as scarring as surviving sexual assault.

New legislation, discussed Tuesday in the New Hampshire House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, would add another layer of scar tissue for the victims of sexual violence.

House Bill 106 would change state law to require corroboration to a victim’s testimony in a sexual assault case if the accused does not have prior convictions for sexual assault. This standard, to necessitate DNA evidence or an eyewitness to the assault, applies only to crimes of sexual assault and no other offenses.

A second bill, HB 284, seeks to change the term "victim" to "complainant" in sexual assault cases. Opponents of the legislation say if this bill passes, those subjected to crime are referred to as victims except for individuals who have been sexually assaulted.

Simply put, these measures make it more challenging for law enforcement and prosecutors to take sexual predators off our streets.

Amanda Grady Sexton, public affairs director for the New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, told The Telegraph these are "the most dangerous sexual assault bills I’ve seen in the 16 years I’ve been doing this job."

Such legislation perpetuates the faulty logic that victims lie about rape, she said, and send a message to the public that "a sexual assault victim is less credible than a victim of any other crime" in New Hampshire.

State Rep. William Marsh, a Wolfeboro Republican and prime sponsor of HB 106, filed the legislation in response to the case of Foad Afshar, a psychotherapist convicted last year of molesting an underage client during a session, according to The Associated Press. Afshar, an acquaintance of Marsh, has denied the allegations.

State Rep. Jess Edwards, an Auburn Republican and co-sponsor of the bill, posted his concerns that the current law will "increasingly lead to a chilling effect in which adults simply choose to not expose themselves to risk of false allegations and therefore withhold their support from vital community organizations and clinical practices."

Edwards argues everyone should support the ideal that a suspect cannot be convicted solely based on a verbal accusation. The changes to New Hampshire law would simply amend the language to have corroborating evidence – text messages, physical examination results or audio/video surveillance, as possible examples – beyond the alleged victim’s accusation if it is a first offense for sexual assault.

"In a society that values the principle that we are innocent until proven guilty, the standards of guilt should be sufficient to avoid having the state wrongly convict the accused," Edwards wrote in a Facebook post. "Unfortunately for the public debate, the social cost of a public policy-induced vacuum of adult volunteer engagement isn’t as apparent as the harm of a sexual abuse."

Sorry, Rep. Edwards, but sexual assault victims already face several obstacles in reporting such crime, including questions of their credibility, and any further changes to the law would make it more difficult when they do step up and speak with law enforcement.

Nashua Police Chief Andrew Lavoie spoke against the bill on Tuesday, calling it a "tremendous overreach," and said it would have a "chilling effect on what is already the most under-reported crime."

The state’s Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence reports approximately 2 out of every 3 sexual assaults nationwide will not be reported to law enforcement.

"Our national stats show that the rate of false allegations are consistent with the false reporting of any other crime," Grady Sexton said.

Everyone deserves equal protection under the law, especially the falsely accused, and the intention behind this bill does not seem sinister. This legislation, however, would not change the law to err on the side of possible innocence – it instead would cripple a law designed to protect victims of sexual assault.