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Channel 3 WTKR - Politicians to change Va. law regarding sexual assault victims

Margaret Kavanagh - 2.23.23

HAMPTON VIRGINIA, Va. — Politicians at the state level are changing a Virginia law after a News 3 investigation exposed harm being done to sexual assault survivors.

The first report got attention from Virginia Attorney General Jason Miyares.

“The idea that you would put the rights of the rapists over the rights of the victim is upside down. It's wrong,” said Miyares back in September.

He said he first learned of the issue after watching our initial story.

Now, Virginia lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are supporting making a change to legislation.

Senator Siobhan Dunnavant from District 12 in Henrico and Hanover counties said as a physician she was horrified to learn about how this was impacting sexual assault survivors.

Supports of changing the law believe that the law enacted in 2021 puts the rights of suspects in front of the rights of survivors.

News 3 first brought you this issue last summer. A woman said raped in her shower after a man broke into her home on a Sunday in Norfolk.

He was arrested.

She said the attack was horrific but the aftermath even worse.

Previously, if someone was arrested for a sexual assault, the Commonwealth Attorney could request from a judge to have the suspect tested for HIV and Hepatitis. The old code stated that the results of such tests shall not be admissible as evidence in any criminal proceeding.

But that law changed in 2021.

The lawmakers who led the change previously said they were trying to destigmatize stereotypes about people living with HIV and made a series of changes to the law.

Senator Jennifer McClellan provided us with the following statement back in August.

"Virginia law empowers survivors of sexual assault to receive free, comprehensive STD testing as part of the Physical Evidence Recovery Kit. As part of this process, survivors can also receive post-exposure medicine to reduce the risk of pregnancy, HIV, and other potential STDs within 72 hours. The 2021 bill modernized outdated language that specifically focused on testing suspects for HIV and Hepatitis after their arrest, as opposed to a more comprehensive approach focused on the survivor's health in the immediate aftermath of the assault."

But rape survivors News 3 spoke with and others said this specific change prevented them from getting vital information after an attack.

Kevin Keller is a lawyer representing the survivor and was appalled by McClellan’s response back in August.

“It's a joke. It's a word salad that was obviously drafted by somebody who is using advertising type of terms, focus group-type terms, such as modernized and empowered," he said. "Who's empowered? What's modernized in the language? The language removed the right for the victim on a showing of probable cause to have the perpetrator submit to a blood test.”

“You know one of the worst things about victimization is the powerlessness and information is power,” said Dunnavant.

The rape victim, in this case, said she has had to take preventative HIV medicine for weeks along with several other medications to prevent STDs and other problems.

She already had previous medical issues which have been exacerbated by the HIV prevention medication. She said the HIV prevention medicine made her extremely sick. She also had to continue to get HIV tests and other blood work done to continue to see if she has been exposed to HIV or anything else during the attack.

She wanted the rape suspect to be tested in an effort to gain more information to learn whether or not she was possibly exposed but the current law did not allow it.

“It is constantly on the forefront of your mind because you question whether or not, you've contracted something,” said the survivor.

“I was approached by the Attorney General's Office, and they shared with me the article that you did and the complications and problems that a victim was having,” said Dunnavant.

Senator Dunnavant and others saw major flaws with the law. She said there are protocols in the medical community to protect doctors, nurses and staff if they are accidentally stuck with a needle or exposed to a person's bodily fluids. She said there should also be protocols for sexual assault survivors.

“I thought I was the perfect person to be able to stand up and explain why being able to have a baseline test of what you might have been exposed to was not only valuable and pertinent but really necessary,” said Dunnavant.

Senator Dunnavant and Delegate Emily Brewer wrote new legislation this session that got support on both sides of the aisle.

Under the new proposed law with a court order, a suspect would undergo STD testing that would not be used against them during their court proceedings but rather provide to the survivor. Supports and victims say this is vital information that will help during the healing process.

“It's taking back the power because you are powerless in that situation,” said the survivors at the center of the case.

Many people praised her courage to speak out.

She said, “It was very upsetting at first, but it has helped to be able to have a voice. It's helped to be able to tell you my story and have you shared it.”

“She's going to help a lot of other women for really stepping up and speaking out,” said Dunnavant.

This new legislation doesn’t single out just HIV and Hepatitis like the original law did, it covers a range of STDs. The new legislation moved through the Virginia House and the Senate with no problem.

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