Bill is aimed at easing rape victims' AIDS fears HIV test of suspect could be requested

January 17, 1992|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,Annapolis Bureau of The Sun

ANNAPOLIS -- Justice worked swiftly for an Overlea bank teller and her two daughters.

The two men who kidnapped them, raped the older daughter and then used the teller's keys to rob the bank in July were arrested, charged, and found guilty in less than six months.

But the family still worries that the older daughter was exposed to the AIDS virus. And, because of the law, they may never know.

"I'm here because of the pleas of a mother who wants to know if her daughter has been infected," Sen. Thomas L. Bromwell, D-Baltimore County, said yesterday at a news conference called to drum up support for a bill allowing a rape victim to request that an assailant be tested for the AIDS virus.

Under current law, neither accused nor convicted rapists can be forced to undergo a test for the human immunodeficiency virus, which causes acquired immune deficiency syndrome. Defendants who agree to the blood tests sometimes use their consent as a bargaining chip, said Del. Ann Marie Doory, D-Baltimore, who will sponsor the House version of the bill.

"They're using it as a bargaining tool," Ms. Doory said. "And using this as legal leverage is, in my opinion, unconscionable."

The bill, to be sponsored in the Senate by Ida G. Ruben, D-Montgomery, would allow a victim to request an HIV test as soon as a suspect was charged, if a judge approved. If the suspect was convicted, the victim's request would be honored automatically.

The results could be revealed only to the victims, their doctors and family members. The test results could not be used as evidence.

Although supporters acknowledged that HIV infection is statistically unlikely in one act of sexual intercourse, they said the law would reduce the stress on a victim.

Unless such a law goes into effect by October, the state could lose at least $800,000 in drug enforcement funds, Ms. Doory and Ms. Ruben said. Federal guidelines require states to have testing requirements or forfeit 10 percent of their funding.

Twenty-four states have similar laws for convicted rapists, and four mandate tests of suspects before conviction.

"We're not breaking new ground here," Ms. Doory said.

Ms. Doory sponsored similar legislation in 1989, and Ms. Ruben in 1990. The bills died in House and Senate committees with little support.

This year, 11 senators have signed on as co-sponsors, including Mr. Bromwell, Ms. Ruben said. Ms. Doory said she has at least seven supporters among the delegates.

Supporters say they have higher hopes this year because they are billing it as a victim's rights initiative instead of a health measure. Ms. Ruben said she wants to distinguish her bill from other HIV-related Senate bills and Gov. William Donald Schaefer's proposal to test all health care workers for the virus.

Health care workers' testimony killed the bill last year, the sponsors said, with an argument that testing might give victims a false sense of security by convincing a woman informed of a negative test that there was no risk at all.

It can take up to six weeks after infection for the HIV virus to become detectable. Theoretically, a rapist could infect someone during that period and test negative. Or the test could yield a false negative.

Given those considerations, Ms. Ruben said, victims should be urged to take the blood tests as well.

Tony Goodrich, a legal assistant from Hyattsville who was raped 16 months ago, said at the news conference that she has had two HIV tests and plans to continue them at six-month intervals. The bill offers her little personal solace, she said, since police have told her that they doubt they will ever have enough evidence to charge the suspect in her case.

"This bill will not help me, but it may help someone," said Ms. Goodrich.

Even its supporters noted that the bill would be irrelevant to most victims of sexual assaults in Maryland. Rape is an underreported crime, and when it is reported police often have difficulty building a strong enough case to charge a suspect.

Today in Annapolis

10 a.m.: Senate convenes, State House.

11 a.m.: House convenes, State House.

11 a.m.: Gov. William Donald Schaefer unveils his proposal to ban certain assault weapons, Governor's Reception Room, State House.

There are 81 days remaining in the 1992 General Assembly session.

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