Rep. Cockerham’s ‘landmark bill’ aiming to help rape victims obtain justice receives governor’s signature

Published 10:31 am Thursday, April 27, 2023

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NATCHEZ — Two pieces of legislation were signed by Gov. Tate Reeves this week which aim to help rape survivors obtain justice and potentially save victims’ lives, said Sandy Middleton of Natchez, who serves as the Executive Director of the Mississippi Center for Violence Prevention.

One is House Bill 995, authored by Rep. Dana McLean, R-Columbus, which addresses the statute and protects victims’ rights by removing the spousal defense for those who commit marital rape and removing 1800s language such as, “assault with the intent to forcibly ravish a female of previously chaste character” from the law.

“Because our rape laws are so archaic, most DAs want to prosecute for sexual battery instead of rape,” Middleton said, adding that previous law did not allow for males as victims. “We want to be open and honest with the public. Rape is rape and needs to be called what it is.”

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The second measure is House Bill 485 authored by District 96 Rep. Angela Cockerham, I-Magnolia, who represents Adams, Amite, Pike and Wilkinson counties.

Cockerham’s bill creates a standard procedure for the timely testing and tracking of sexual assault evidence or “rape kits” in Mississippi.

“We are now a state that has a process for how this evidence is processed and transported. There were 36 states that had such procedures in place. It’s a win for Mississippi,” Cockerham said.

In a rare turn of events, the same bills which passed the House but were voted down by the Senate in 2022 were reintroduced with some “retooling,” and were passed by both and signed into law by Gov. Reeves on Tuesday, Cockerham said.

“After the session ended in 2022, we regrouped and brought in additional partners,” she said, including McLean, Rep. Jill Ford, and other house members.

Cockerham said it’s a cause that is “near and dear” to her and several partners who have been engaged with the successful passage of the bill for the past two years, including the Mississippi Center for Violence Prevention, Joyful Heart and the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network.

“HB 485, signed by Governor Reeves (Tuesday), will standardize the handling, timely testing and tracking of sexual assault evidence kits in Mississippi, providing victims a true path to justice,” said House Speaker Philip Gunn. “Many thanks to Representatives Angela Cockerham, Dana McLean and Jill Ford as well as the MS Center for Violence Prevention, Sandy Middleton, and the Joyful Heart Foundation for their steadfast work for victims’ rights.”

Middleton said a total of 10 rape cases have made it to trial over the last three years in all of Mississippi. By comparison, the Center for Violence Prevention conducted 90 sexual assault kits in the past year, just in the metro Jackson area, she said.

“We worked consistently with Sean Tindell (Commissioner of the Mississippi Department of Public Safety) and the director of the crime lab (Mary Dukes),” Cockerham said, adding the current processing and tracking of rape kits — or lack thereof — was creating a backlog not in the crime lab, but in hospital refrigerators or at police departments and sheriff’s offices overall.

She said the law does more than set a timeframe for the proper storage and tracking of the kits.

“It gives a list of rights, a bill of rights if you will, for sexual assault victims,” she said. “It gives the victim the right to know what the results are, whether a person has been identified or not from the testing of the kit.”

The law also creates a task force, to be established in July 2023 or later, that will examine the feasibility of placing tracking devices in the kits that will present their report within 12 months of the law going into effect.

“With the passage of this bill, we’ll be able to identify perpetrators of sexual assault victims, and the victims will know once they have been identified,” she said. “We’re giving tools to our prosecutors and law enforcement officials … enhancing the measures that we have in place.”

Furthermore, Middleton said the legislation may help to “prevent rape in our community by putting criminals behind bars.”

“Both pieces of legislation are landmark,” Middleton said. “It gives victims hope for justice. Most victims tie their recovery to a sense of justice. It’s difficult when they don’t see that happen and they are not informed of what is going on with their cases. … When justice is missing, it’s difficult for them to move past it.”

For anyone who wants to connect with the Center for Violence Prevention, either as a victim or seeking more information, call 601-932-4198.