Opinion: Utah law protects rape culture. That needs to change.

In the victim advocacy community, hard work is occurring to update Utah law.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) The House Chamber of the Utah Legislature on Friday, March 25, 2022.

When Harvey Weinstein’s habitual harassment and rape in the workplace and beyond made headlines, my husband and I followed the news with horror. Digesting details of Weinstein’s pervasive crimes prompted my husband to ask if I’d ever been sexually harassed at work.

I explained I’d never not been. From explicit jokes at my expense in front of coworkers and a boss repeatedly asking me for dates, to unsolicited opinions about my figure offered by a guy passing my desk. Every. Single. Job.

My generation was resigned to such daily torments. We told ourselves things could have been worse. Later, we cheered as justice caught up to Weinstein, believing his conviction and sentence signaled progress in holding men accountable when they violate our rights.

But justice is a many-wheeled vehicle — and it moves slowly. Take rape law. Nationally, it’s evolving to incorporate standards of “affirmative consent,” a victim-protective approach gaining traction over the past decade. Utah, though, still utilizes non-consent standards.

To understand the difference, imagine a courtroom with a rape survivor on the witness stand. In Wisconsin, which has affirmative consent laws, a lawyer could ask if a victim said “yes” to her accused rapist. In Utah, she wouldn’t get that question. She’d be asked if she convinced her rapist she didn’t want to have sex.

Presuming victims “consented” makes conviction harder, according to people working in the legal and judicial systems. That means harder to prosecute, which translates to fewer prosecutions, more difficulty getting victims to come forward and more plea deals. Affirmative consent takes into account what research has shown is a common response during sexual assaults — “freezing.” Victims who freeze don’t fight or scream. But neither is their motionless terror consent, though silence and lack of a physical fight have been used to cast “reasonable doubt” during trials.

Knowing state law helps understand cases that can look like miscarriages of justice.

In Park City and broader victim and advocate communities, there’s the sentence former lawyer Joe Wrona received after pleading guilty to two felonies involving forcible sexual abuse and incest.

A plea deal avoided his original 2022 rape charge from going to trial. Wrona is serving a year in jail followed by four years of probation. He’s registered as a sex offender, won’t practice law here anymore and is barred for life from contacting his victim.

Under state sentencing rule 11(i), 3rd District Court Judge Richard Mrazik lacked authority to change the plea deal’s terms. Legally, Mrazik could only accept the deal as presented or reject it entirely and order a trial. At Wrona’s sentencing, Mrazik acknowledged the deal’s terms would spark skepticism, but he highlighted value in the deal’s certainty “as compared to the risk of a hung jury or a not-guilty verdict, both of which have happened in this courtroom in the last two years in sex abuse cases.”

How would a trial have gone? Court documents reflect Wrona, 61, claimed sex with his young adult victim was consensual, fundamentally contradicting her statements. Wrona initially pled not guilty and has a constitutional right to a trial, during which any conviction would come from a jury instructed to follow Utah consent law to the letter.

The victim’s lawyer said she agreed to the deal terms. The County Attorney’s Office issued a statement saying it wouldn’t “sacrifice the emotional and mental wellness of an already-traumatized human being on the altar of public cries for maximum penalties.”

The public will never know all the details. We don’t need to. What we need to know is that enabling harassers and rapists takes many forms. And laws shape how — and whether — rapes are prosecuted.

In the victim advocacy community, hard work is occurring to update Utah law. Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, is trying for the third year in a row to pass a law establishing a non-consent standard. HB162 would define grounds for a third-degree felony: sex without affirmative consent. It would also add affirmative consent language to the sex and kidnap offender registry.

Romero said she aims to hold perpetrators accountable and improve the underreporting of sexual assaults that springs from victims worrying they won’t be believed.

Past versions of Romero’s bill never made it to a vote; maybe this one will. While her effort has the support of some in the legal community, criminal defense attorneys have opposed it.

Wheels of progress indeed.

Michelle Deininger

Michelle Deininger is a journalist in Park City who worked as news director at KPCW and has reported for The Salt Lake Tribune.

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