Sandy Middleton, executive director of the Center for Violence Prevention, spoke Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2022, at the Bridge Forensic Clinic in Pearl about new sexual assault evidence collection kits developed by the clinic. The kits can be used in a police case and prosecution. Credit: Mina Corpuz / M

Two measures aimed at helping rape survivors get justice have unanimously passed the state House and are before the Senate, where they were killed without a vote last year.

But Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann, who oversees the Senate, on Wednesday voiced support for the measures, which could help their chances greatly.

“The lieutenant governor supports the bills and is encouraging the chairmen to bring them out of committee,” said spokeswoman Leah Rupp Smith.

House Bill 485, authored by Rep. Angela Cockerham, I-Magnolia, would standardize the handling, timely testing and tracking of sexual assault evidence or “rape kits” in Mississippi. Unlike 36 other states, Mississippi has no statewide rules and advocates say there is a large — albeit unknown due to lack of tracking — backlog of unprocessed rape kits. It would also give survivors the right to know the status of their kits.

House Bill 995, authored by Rep. Dana McLean, R-Columbus, would remove archaic, misogynistic language from the 1800s from Mississippi’s rape and sexual battery laws and remove a spousal defense for those who commit marital rape. The bill would clarify the definition and elements of rape and sexual assault, replacing passages such as “assault with the intent to forcibly ravish a female of previously chaste character.”

Sandy Middleton, director of the Center for Violence Prevention, said, “Mississippi has a backlog of rape cases, but it’s not at the crime lab. The kits are sitting in hospital emergency room refrigerators or the trunk of police cruisers.”

Middleton and other advocates said statistics are scant, but one review showed that from 2019 through 2021, only 20 rapes were prosecuted in Mississippi. While there are problems finding statistics on reported rapes, one national report said Mississippi had 1,148 reported cases in 2020.

A 2019 Associated Press report said that at the time there was a backlog of 600 rape kits that had not been DNA tested.

Middleton said a Jackson area hospital recently reported that it had 50 rape kits in a refrigerator awaiting law enforcement to pick them up, and some had been there for a year and a half. Of those, 15 were from cases where children were raped.

Besides lack of testing of evidence, Mississippi’s antiquated rape laws hinder prosecution.

McLean said she believes many prosecutors use the state’s sexual battery laws instead of the rape statute with harsher penalties because the latter’s language is so antiquated.

READ MORE: Lawmaker continues bid to remove archaic, misogynistic language from state rape, sexual battery laws

McLean’s bill would delete language in the law that says a person would not be guilty of rape or sexual battery if the alleged victim was the defendant’s legal spouse at the time of the offense and the couple is not separated and living apart. It would also change law that said a legal spouse may be found guilty of sexual battery if the spouse engaged in forcible penetration without the consent of the alleged victim. McLean said because current law uses language such as “forcible” and “consent,” this could be used as a defense if a spouse was incapacitated, such as passed out drunk or on drugs.

Although since the early 1990s every state recognizes marital rape as a crime, some including Mississippi still have laws on the books that either provide protection for the perpetrator or lesser penalties. 

Both bills recently passed the House unanimously. But they both passed the House overwhelmingly last year as well, only to die in Senate committee.

Advocates supporting the bills, flanked by several House and Senate lawmakers, held a press conference on the measures on Wednesday. They said Senate Judiciary A Chairman Brice Wiggins, who’s been assigned the rape kit bill, has worked with them and appeared supportive. Wiggins did not respond to a request for comment on Wednesday.

House Bill 995 to remove archaic and misogynistic language and a spousal rape defense from the law has been assigned again to Senate Judiciary B Chairman Joey Fillingane’s committee. Last year, after he let the bill die without a vote in his committee, Fillingane said he agreed with the bill’s intent, but said there were numerous bills in both chambers aimed at changing rape and assault laws. He said he wanted to have hearings out of session and make sweeping changes instead of having multiple different bills.

Fillingane on Wednesday was noncommittal on whether he would take the bill up for a vote in committee this year, only that, “We are certainly looking at it and studying it.” He said he has not had hearings or drafted sweeping changes to rape and assault laws, but is doing such work with other older state code. He said the rape code McLean’s bill aims to update “is very outdated and the whole section is in need of a revision.”

Advocates on Wednesday said rape survivors want justice and deserve to know the status of testing in their case.

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Geoff Pender serves as senior political reporter, working closely with Mississippi Today leadership on editorial strategy and investigations. Pender brings 30 years of political and government reporting experience to Mississippi Today. He was political and investigative editor at the Clarion Ledger, where he also penned a popular political column. He previously served as an investigative reporter and political editor at the Sun Herald, where he was a member of the Pulitzer Prize-winning team for Hurricane Katrina coverage. Originally from Florence, Mississippi, Pender is a journalism graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi and has received numerous awards throughout his career for reporting, columns and freedom of information efforts.