ANNAPOLIS – Maryland lawmakers are targeting ways to curb violence against women and children by toughening existing laws.
Legislation introduced in the General Assembly would make it easier to convict accused stalkers and would extend protection to child sexual abuse victims from revealing their prior sexual history in public.
Stalking is illegal in Maryland, but prosecutors said it is virtually impossible to convict anyone because proving the intent of the accused, as the law requires, is often difficult.
“If we can’t prove it, we’re usually proving harassment, which comes with a much lesser penalty,” said Sue Schenning, a Baltimore County deputy state’s attorney.
Stalking under the existing law is a misdemeanor crime requiring the prosecutor to prove the defendant intended to harm the individual. Under the proposed changes, a prosecutor would only have to prove a “reasonable” person in the same position would know his or her actions would cause a victim to fear harm.
The bill’s sponsor, Delegate Carol Petzold, D-Montgomery, said the legislation will fight the incessant fear that stalking provokes.
The fear induced in October’s sniper attacks is “the kind of fear that we’re talking about,” Petzold said.
At a news conference Monday, Joan Sullivan, a stalking victim who, with her husband, endured months of frightening behavior by a prior boyfriend, said that changes in the law will be helpful.
“If this legislation was in place he (stalker) would have been at least tried and possibly convicted for stalking,” said Sullivan, a Gambrills resident.
Instead, Sullivan’s stalker was convicted of harassment and other lesser crimes, said Michael Cogan, an Anne Arundel County prosecutor.
Lawmakers also want to promote stalking to a felony, a move that domestic violence foes praised.
Cynthia Golomb, legislative counsel for Maryland Network Against Domestic Violence, said a felony conviction will prevent a convicted stalker from obtaining firearms, possibly preventing more dangerous acts.
The Maryland Family Violence Council is spearheading the push for revisions to the bill.
“I was pleased to see that somebody was following the progress of the original stalking statute and recognized that it needed to be improved,” said Pauline Menes, D-Prince George’s.
The “rape shield law,” which prevents victims from having to disclose their sexual history in open court, was also in need of improvement, said Delegate Justin Ross, D-Prince George’s. The bill would close a loophole in the law, by expanding its protection to child sexual abuse victims.
Menes, chief sponsor of the rape shield law changes, said before the law passed, women were hesitant to come forward because they feared their private lives would be exposed.
“A child,” she said, “is even more sensitive.”