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Will Virginia’s campus sexual assault laws help protect future victims?

Virginia officials hope a new law enforcement approach will help curb campus sexual assaults

ROANOKE, Va. — The bedroom where Morgan Harrington once slept looks much as she left it six years ago, the last time anyone saw her alive.

Little photographs of her smiling face among family and friends line the full-length mirror in her room. Posters of her favorite bands — Led Zeppelin, the Beatles, Black Sabbath and Metallica — fill the wall next to her neatly made bed.

Harrington, a Virginia Tech student, disappeared after attending a Metallica concert at the University of Virginia in October 2009. Three months later, a farmer found her skeletonized body in a field in Albemarle County, about 10 miles away.

Her mother, Gil Harrington, believes her daughter, a young artist who wanted to be a teacher, was kidnapped, sexually assaulted and murdered. 

While Gil Harrington waits for a full explanation about who killed her daughter and why, Virginia has passed a series of laws aimed at protecting sexual assault victims on college campuses.

“I think these are laws that will save the next girl,” said Harrington, who created the advocacy group Help Save the Next Girl. “I think to change the dynamic, you have to change the culture.” 

New laws

On July 1, several pieces of legislation went into effect, including one that expands how and when police may collect DNA evidence from a suspect. There are now nine additional misdemeanor offenses for which an adult must provide DNA to the state’s data bank upon a conviction.

“That was an important piece of legislation,” Harrington said. 

Gil Harrington wonders whether new laws in Virginia aimed at protecting future sexual assault victims on college campuses would have saved her daughter.
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She wonders whether the law would have saved her daughter. The DNA on the T-shirt her daughter was wearing the night she went missing has been linked to DNA from a 2005 rape in Fairfax County. 

Before either of those cases, the suspect, Jesse Matthew, was twice accused but never convicted of sexual assault on two college campuses.

Matthew has since been charged with the 2014 murder of another Virginia college student, Hannah Graham, a University of Virginia student who vanished in September 2014 after having dinner with friends and visiting two off-campus parties. Her body was discovered nearly a month later.

The Hannah Graham Law

Virginia state Sen. Dick Black was motivated by Graham’s murder. His legislation, which he calls the Hannah Graham Law, requires schools to include a police officer and possibly the local prosecutor in their sexual assault investigations.

Under Title IX, schools are required to promptly review and investigate sexual assault complaints on campus, regardless of a criminal investigation.
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“I just have to think that if someone had taken a firm stand from the beginning and had said, OK, this is serious business … I can’t say for sure, but I think there’s a possibility that she might be alive today,” Black said.

Under Title IX, schools are required to promptly review and investigate sexual assault complaints on campus, regardless of a criminal investigation. 

“I wanted a law enforcement approach,” he said, explaining that the new legislation requires police officers investigating sexual assault to report suspicion of a felony to fellow law enforcement officers or local prosecutors for consideration.

He added, “We want the local prosecutor to find out. Because once he does, that puts some pressure on him also.”

‘I think these are laws that will save the next girl. I think to change the dynamic, you have to change the culture.’

Gil Harrington

founder, Help Save the Next Girl

Justin Dillon, a defense attorney in Washington, D.C., said he doesn’t believe there is anything good about having a law enforcement officer involved in the campus investigation.

Dillon, who often represents the accused in campus sexual assault cases, said the new law could lead to long-lasting consequences for individuals who aren’t serious offenders.

“Most of the people found responsible for sexual misconduct on campus are simply young people who have been drinking, who find themselves in an ambiguous situation and often make poor choices,” he said. “If you bring law enforcement in at the early stage and they are told that they have reporting requirements, to a hammer, everything is nail.”

He said that under the new law, police officers would be more likely to recommend that these cases go through the criminal justice system, although not all of them should.

Virginia’s Scarlet Letter

Dillon is also skeptical of what some call Virginia’s scarlet letter law.

The law requires colleges and universities to place a prominent notation on a student’s academic transcript if he or she has been suspended or dismissed for a campus sexual assault or withdrew from the school amid a sexual assault investigation.

Although schools are required to develop a plan for removing the notation under certain circumstances, Dillon worries the law could have a damaging effect on students’ futures.

“I don't think a transcript law is ever going to stop a predator from preying on people,” he said. “Predators are going to prey. That’s just what they're going to do.”

No one can be certain whether any of these new laws would have prevented the deaths of Hannah Graham or Morgan Harrington, but Gil Harrington takes some comfort believing it is possible that the new laws could save someone else.

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