The right to be heard

The reasons for silence are as often as obvious as they are unknown.

One of them certainly must be that it helps soothe sorrow.

Still another would have to be that it’s a response to anger.

And for some, the virtual silence attached to sexual assault crimes silences justice.

But in recent years, that has begun to change, and those changes were never more apparent in West Virginia than in the state Senate last week.

On the same day a doctor was being sentenced to 175 years in prison in Michigan for hundreds of sex crimes, 33 of our state’s lawmakers were advancing a Sexual Assault Victim’s Bill of Rights.

Senate Bill 39 provides for eight rights for sexual assault victims that should go a long way toward ending how this grossly underreported crime is often shelved.

The state senator who sponsored this bill put it politely when he said, “The fact is, we don’t treat our sexual assault victims very well.”

Sen. Mike Woefel, D-Cabell, noted that the state’s crime lab takes about 440 days on average to process rape kits. Waiting more than a year to have a rape kit evaluated is clearly unacceptable — not only to the victim, but to society at large.

Woefel introducted a companion bill (SB 36), in committee, to create a state commission to determine time frames and protocols for processing these kits.

For now, SB 39 is in the House while the DNA testing bill is being considered by a Senate committee.

The Senate’s unanimous support for SB 39 (one senator was absent) is nothing short of a public policy shift.

Not only will this legislation make the process more victim-friendly but it should also encourage more victims to report this crime.

It’s important to note that some of these victim’s rights incorporated into SB 39 were already embedded in the legal system.

For example, the rights to receive a forensic medical exam and to have a rape kit tested and preserved.

However, this bill also provides for such rights as to have a personal representative accompany the victim to a hospital and attend police interviews.

It also provides for requesting evidence be preserved for up to
10 years; being notified if forensic evidence is going to be destroyed; and being able to obtain test results, among other rights.

This bill also cleverly includes a final provision that sex assault victims have the right to be informed of their rights.

None of us — lawmakers or citizens — can ever dictate how juries and courts arrive at justice in sexual assault cases.

But almost as important as the outcome of these cases, it’s imperative that we ensure these victims’ calls for justice are heard.