INDIANAPOLIS – Gov. Eric Holcomb has signed a bill into law changing the state’s definition of rape for the first time since the 19th century.
Starting July 1, Indiana’s definition of rape will include situations when “the person disregarded the other person’s attempts to physically, verbally, or by other visible conduct refuse the person’s acts.”
The governor’s signature comes as welcome news to many who advocated for the change, including survivors of sexual assault.
One of those survivors who testified at the Statehouse is Stephanie Stewart, who said she was sexually assaulted in her Carmel home in 2019 by a home security salesman.
“I just had this dark cloud hanging over me for months,” Stewart said.
She filed a police report, but the prosecutor’s office declined to file charges, she said.
“They said it was our weak consent law,” Stewart said. “Because of our weak consent law, they did not feel that they could get a jury conviction.”
We reached out to the Hamilton County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office for this story and are waiting to hear back.
Attorneys say Stewart’s case isn’t alone.
If “the situation was not one that had physical force present, then we were oftentimes just not able to charge that,” said Amy Blackett of the Indiana Prosecuting Attorneys Council.
Blackett, who used to prosecute sexual assault cases in Marion County, said she believes the change approved to state law could help get more survivors of sexual assault justice.
“It adds another avenue for us to be able to charge rape when the person expresses to the attacker ‘no,'” Blackett said. “So we’re basically just kind of putting in black and white that no means no.”
Lawmakers behind the legislation pushed for the change for several years to more closely match rape laws in other states.
“I think it just took more time and creating awareness amongst my fellow legislators,” said State Rep. Sharon Negele (R-Attica), the bill’s author. “I don’t think very many people understand the courtroom process.”
Advocates say they hope the measure ultimately makes an impact in reducing sexual assault.
“We also know it’s not the end of this discussion, really, but an important step forward,” said Beth White, president and CEO of the Indiana Coalition to End Sexual Assault & Human Trafficking.
Stephanie Stewart said she’s also thinking of her daughters.
“Just to know that this law is on the books gives me better comfort that if something terrible ever happened, at least they have a better chance of pursuing a perpetrator,” Stewart said.
The new legislation would only apply to incidents that occur on or after July 1 when the law takes effect, Blackett said.