CONCORD, N.H. (AP) — New Hampshire lawmakers are considering a sexual assault bill that police and prosecutors warn would protect pedophiles and sexual predators but proponents say would prevent wrongful convictions.
The bill up for a hearing Tuesday would require victims of sexual assault to corroborate their testimony if the defendant has no prior related conviction. Existing law in New Hampshire and most other states doesn't require corroboration, and the bill doesn't define what counts as corroboration.
"It's really nothing short of the nation's first pedophile protection act," Sgt. Sean Ford of the Concord Police Department said.
Thirty six states don't require corroboration and most of the remaining states that do require it in limited circumstances, said Jennifer Long, chief executive officer of Aequitas, a group that provides resources for prosecutors on violence against women.
Opponents of the bill wore pink stickers that said "I believe victims," others wore "Justice for Foad" tags, a reference to a New Hampshire psychotherapist who was convicted last year of molesting an underage client.
Republican Rep. William Marsh filed the bill after learning about Foad Afshar's case, now on appeal. Afshar maintains his innocence and several supporters who testified on behalf of the bill said they believe him.
Other supporters said the change will ensure doctors, teachers and others who deal with children can do their jobs without fear of being accused of assault and wrongly convicted.
"If the person charged is innocent, they will have little ability to defend themselves, as the only testimony is that of a young child who may not be able to provide a reliable story," Marsh said.
But opponents argue the change would silence victims, particularly children, and leave predators on the street. Experts said sexual assault is one of the most underreported crimes and children typically come forward years after the assault, meaning potential evidence may no longer be available. They said that often times repeat offenders are not immediately convicted because children don't come forward.
"This is telling us that children will be turned away because they don't have a witness or DNA to their crimes. How sick is that? What message is this sending?" said a New Hampshire victim of sexual assault named Angie who testified only using her first name.
Prosecutors and police said investigators always search for evidence when building cases and often present it at trial. But they also said evidence doesn't exist in some child sexual assault cases and that the change would make it harder to pursue those cases. State statutes for other criminal offices don't specifically require a victim's testimony to be corroborated for prosecution. They said requiring testimony only when a defendant does not have a prior conviction would set up a potentially unconstitutional two-tiered system for justice.
Marsh, the bill's sponsor, said corroboration could include an eye witness, physical evidence such as photographs or behavioral change in the child. But none of that is spelled out in the bill.
New Hampshire has in recent years passed a number of bills to update and strengthen its domestic and sexual violence laws.
"I truly believe in my heart that this is a step backward," former state Sen. David Boutin said.