A pair of legislators are raising new concerns that judges and defense attorneys were left out of a group that's worked for months to overhaul and strengthen Minnesota's sexual assault laws.
"For their voice to be missing contributes to the concern of bias in the recommendations," Sen. Ron Latz, D-St. Louis Park, said Tuesday.
Latz raised his concerns as part of several days of hearings at the Minnesota Capitol about sexual assault laws and how the proposed changes came about.
Police and prosecutors weighed in Tuesday on recommendations from then-Attorney General Lori Swanson's 10-member task force, formed after the Star Tribune's special report, "Denied Justice," documented pervasive failings in the way Minnesota law enforcement agencies investigate sexual assault.
The task force comprised police, prosecutors, medical experts and victims' advocates, but no defense attorneys or judges who see the cases close up.
Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria, echoed Latz, calling it "troublesome" that neither group was represented.
In response, the committee chairman, Sen. Warren Limmer said that the Star Tribune's published reports didn't investigate how defense attorneys did their jobs, focusing instead on police and prosecutors.
"I think it would be natural for the task force to continue in that line of focus," said Limmer, R-Maple Grove. "The target of the story was not criminal defense attorneys."
Latz acknowledged that "there are a lot of ways the criminal justice system has failed victims of sexual assault crimes," but he also criticized a recommendation made by the task force that prosecutors consider charging more difficult cases, "even when evidence to prove a conviction beyond a reasonable doubt is less than certain."
Swanson initially presented the report to the Senate committee on Monday, allowing on Tuesday for law enforcement to weigh in on recommendations such as calls for mandated training to be offered by the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension.
Liz Richards, executive director of the Minnesota Coalition for Battered Women, supports additional training for handling sexual assaults. But she said any training would need to be "Minnesota specific and tailored and geared toward jurisdictions."
"What works for Minneapolis and St. Paul is different than what's needed in Duluth and Rochester," she said.
Minnesota House Democrats said they are supporting several measures meant to toughen sexual assault laws and the way police and prosecutors handle the cases.
"For far too long victims and survivors of sexual assault have had their judicial system fail them in their efforts to hold their violators accountable," said Rep. Carlos Mariani, D-St. Paul, chairman of the House Public Safety and Criminal Justice Reform Committee.
Mariani's committee will hold hearings over three days on sexual assault reforms as part of "Gender-Based Violence Prevention Week."
A proposal introduced by Rep. Kelly Moller, D-Shoreview, and co-signed by Marion O'Neill, R-Maple Lake, would require Minnesota's law enforcement agencies to adopt policies on how to investigate sexual assaults. Another would create a task force, convened by the Minnesota commissioner of public safety, charged with rewriting the state's criminal sexual conduct laws.
Attorney General Keith Ellison said Tuesday that he supports that proposal. Ellison is newly elected and it has remained uncertain whether he would embrace the work of Swanson's task force.
"We're actually planning to continue the work of Swanson's task force because it needs to be carried on," he said. "We're going to keep up the work."
Other proposals will be brought back after they failed to pass last year, including repealing the "marital rape exception." That law bars prosecution in certain cases involving "cohabitating couples."
The measure's sponsor, Rep. Zack Stephenson, D-Coon Rapids, called the exception "a relic of history when a woman was considered the property of her husband."
Stephenson said the proposal would result in seven additional convictions per year and would apply to cases like Jenny Teeson's. The Andover woman testified before the committee that in 2016 she discovered videos on the family computer of her now ex-husband sexually assaulting her while she was drugged and unconscious on their bed.
Teeson's husband was charged with felony third-degree criminal sexual conduct, but the charge was soon dropped after his attorney argued that under the law, he couldn't be charged with such a crime if they were married at the time.
"By the next morning I was ready to go to work to make sure no one in a similar situation has to hear, 'I'm sorry, the charges have been dropped.' " Teeson said.
Her ex-husband eventually pleaded guilty to invasion of privacy and received 45 days in jail.
"What he did to me was sexual assault, yet nothing shows on his record of the crimes he committed against me," Teeson said.
That proposal advanced by a unanimous vote.
Another bill would make it a crime to touch someone on their clothed buttocks with sexual aggression and intent.
Rep. Mary Kunesh-Podein, D-New Brighton, reintroduced legislation that would create a task force to address murdered and missing American Indian women in Minnesota. Another bill would repeal statutes of limitations on bringing sexual assault charges.