Hannah Traaseth told a hushed room of Minnesota lawmakers about the worst night of her life, when she was 13 and two men brought her to a Maplewood home, where they took turns sexually assaulting her over several hours. When she summoned the courage to come forward, police investigated and forwarded the case to the Ramsey County Attorney.
“[Police] said there would probably be a trial. I was scared, but I was ready to go,” Traaseth, now 17, testified before the House’s Public Safety and Criminal Justice Reform committee on Wednesday. “Then when they told me it wasn’t going to get prosecuted, I was just confused.”
Amid tears, Traaseth shared her experience in support of “Hannah’s Law,” a measure that would see sweeping changes to Minnesota’s sexual assault laws, from wiping out statutes of limitations to making it easier to bring charges when an assault victim was intoxicated. It’s among several bills seeking to improve how rape cases are handled in the state, and it would also have an impact in cases like Hannah’s. Ramsey County prosecutors declined to charge her case, citing a provision of the law that says if the two 21-year-old suspects could prove they believed she was 16, they would be acquitted. Hannah’s Law would erase that provision.
Traaseth recounted her experience as part of a nine-part Star Tribune series last year, Denied Justice, which revealed that police and prosecutors routinely fail to adequately handle sexual assault crimes.
The reforms would be sweeping, said Rep. Marion O’Neill, R-Maple Lake, the chief sponsor of Hannah’s Law. “But you’re either gonna go big or go home sometimes,” she said.
An analysis of O’Neill’s bill by the Minnesota Management and Budget Office found that if passed, it would see more offenders convicted of sexual assault, resulting in a need for 104 additional prison beds each year by 2032.
Traaseth wasn’t the only sexual assault survivor to tell her story Wednesday. Laura Stearns was raped when she was a 15-year-old member of Children’s Theatre Company. It wasn’t until her 30s that she said she realized she was a victim of a crime. By then, the statute of limitations for bringing charges in the case passed.
“It didn’t provide a way for me to hold him accountable,” Stearns said.
Stearns recently saw some measure of justice in civil court, where a jury awarded a $3.68 million verdict against the man she accused of the rape, Jason McLean.
The sexual assault measures will be considered for inclusion into a larger bill to be drafted later in the session, said the committee chairman, Rep. Carlos Mariani, DFL-St. Paul.
“Our government, our laws should protect you. That’s not happening,” Mariani told Traaseth after she testified.
On Friday, the Senate Judiciary and Public Safety Finance and Policy Committee will hear several measures requiring Minnesota’s 400-plus law enforcement agencies to create written policies to guide sexual assault investigations, and requiring the state’s Department of Public Safety to collect records from agencies detailing how many sexual assault reports they field and respond to each year.
Under the measure, Minnesota police agencies would be required to base their policies on a model in development by the state’s police licensing board. The bill’s reporting requirement also orders departments to track how many sex assault reports each agency receives, how many are assigned investigators and how many are prosecuted. Agencies would also be tasked with counting how many cases are assigned to an investigator who has received training in victim- and trauma-centered techniques.
The committee’s chairman, Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, is sponsoring the bill, which also adds alcohol impairment to the state’s definition of factors that would render someone “physically helpless” and unable to consent to sex.
Limmer’s Senate bill would also allow victims — or someone who believes another person has been sexually assaulted — to report the crime to any law enforcement agency regardless of jurisdiction. That agency would then be required to open an investigation or refer the case to the proper department to investigate.
After Traaseth finished her testimony as her father looked on, O’Neill wrapped her in an embrace, and the lawmakers commended her courage and pledged to act.
“We want to do everything we can to put perpetrators behind bars where they belong,” said Rep. Brian Johnson, R-Cambridge. “Hopefully a bill like this will be able to help us to do that.”
Traaseth had thought for months about what she would tell the lawmakers when given the chance. Before she began, she confessed that she didn’t have a speech written out.
“I haven’t spoken with so many important people before,” she said. “But I think this should come from the heart.”
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