Definition of rape debated in Supreme Court case

Emily Parkin

A new ruling by the Ohio Supreme Court narrows the definition of rape in the state, and the focus on language in sex crime laws is something survivor advocates say needs to change.

The Wednesday ruling came in the case of a Highland County woman charged with rape involving a two-year-old child. The Ohio Supreme Court reversed the decisions of an appeals court and trial court that convicted the woman of rape, saying instead, the actions, which she admitted to, constitute gross sexual imposition under state law. Gross sexual imposition is a lesser charge that could net less punishment.

Miranda Smith pleaded no contest to multiple sex crimes for a sex act she directed a child to conduct on her. She also filmed the act and sent the video to her boyfriend. Smith was sentenced to 10 years to life on a charge of rape. A change from the rape charge to the gross sexual imposition charge could cut her sentence down to five years on that charge.

Though she did not argue the allegations were false, attorneys for the woman appealed, saying because the sex act was conducted on her and she did not conduct the act herself, it could not be considered rape.

The justices decided in the opinion that a rape conviction requires evidence that someone accused of rape conducted the act. Someone who “compelled” another to do so can’t be convicted of rape.

Prosecutors tried to argue that state law focuses on the act itself, not on the person doing the act, but supreme court justices rejected that argument, saying prosecutors were asking them to rewrite the law “to make the statute fit the facts of this case.”

“We cannot do that, though,” Justice Patrick Fischer wrote. “Instead, we must apply the law as written.”

It’s this focus on the language of the law rather than the impact the crime had on the child that troubles those who advocate for rape and sex crime survivors.

Amy Dudley is the director of the only accredited rape crisis center in Montgomery and Preble counties, the YWCA Dayton’s Center for Survivors of Sexual Violence. She said the fact that a defendant’s arguments seemed to matter more in this supreme court case than the long-term impact to the child is why laws need to change.

“If we can say that a 2-year-old was complicit in (Smith’s) sexual conduct, what does that say for older survivors?” Dudley said, after reviewing the case and watching oral arguments.

YWCA Dayton’s CSSV focuses on adult survivors, but Dudley said research supports the fact that child sex crime survivors feel effects far into adulthood, and having to relive trauma or come to terms with it later in life can cause even more issues than the initial abuse.

“They’re becoming these unhealthy adults with mental health issues and other issues that sometimes aren’t addressed,” Dudley said. “(For adult survivors) if the law wasn’t there to protect this child in this case, when will it?”

The supreme court decision said state law makes a distinction between engaging in sexual conduct with another and “causing another to engage  in sexual conduct.”

“Of course, the fact that Smith’s conduct does not fall under the rape statute does not mean that it is not criminal,” Fischer contended.

Seeing a person’s sentence minimized in a crime of this type is something that could have impacts on the entire process of helping survivors, Dudley said. That’s why it’s important that the justice system turn toward a “survivor focus” while giving everyone involved the rights they are owed.

“It’s important for a defendant to have a right to trial…but it is equally important for there to be a survivor focus,” Dudley said.

Protections and protocols need to change from the beginning, when people are educated about what consent and abuse look like, all the way to the procedures in place when a survivor needs to report a crime.

“They have to have an advocate to hold their hand through the process, and make sure they’re not revictimized and retraumatized,” Dudley said. “If it really is the wording of the law, the words need to change.”

The Ohio Prosecuting Attorneys Association said the outcome for the victim is not the fault of the court, but is “ripe for a legislative fix.”

“This was a despicable sexual act against an innocent two-year-old child and I think most Ohioans would be appalled to find out that it’s not considered rape to cause a young child to engage in sexual conduct like this,” Louis Tobin, executive director of the OPAA, told the OCJ.

The court will not hold a new trial in Smith’s case, instead the Ohio Supreme Court ordered the trial court to modify the conviction to gross sexual imposition and hold a resentencing.

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Definition of rape debated in Supreme Court case

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