CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Senator Mike Woelfel has spent his life fighting for the rights of sexual assault victims.
Now his passion is guiding two pieces of legislation that he says would give sexual assault survivors greater rights in West Virginia.
“This is a very under-reported crime and God knows how many victims, boys and girls, are out there,” said Woelfel, D-Cabell. “Maybe these bills will make it easier for these victims to go through the criminal justice system.”
One bill he sponsors would create a sexual assault survivors’ bill of rights.
The other bill outlines the handling of DNA evidence, including some steps meant to expedite the processing of DNA tests.
Both bills have been assigned to the Senate Judiciary Committee, but not yet taken up. .As of Friday morning, there were 207 bills pending in Senate Judiciary.
“They should really be run as a package and that way one or the other doesn’t get lost in the shuffle,” Woelfel said. “It shines a brighter light on the two. It seems to me the likelihood of them both passing is enhanced by them being examined in concert.”
Woelfel was a Cabell County prosecutor from 1978 to 1980. Then he was a juvenile court referee for 30 years. In his Huntington law practice, one of his focuses is on lawsuits filed by sexual assault victims.
Woelfel says those experiences have made him sensitive to what sexual assault victims go through and how West Virginia law could be improved to help them.
“I’ve learned we don’t treat our sexual assault victims very well,” Woelfel said during an interview in his office at the Capitol this past week. “When I saw Congress had passed, almost unanimously, the sexual assault bill of rights, I thought we should start to modernize our approach to the topic.”
Some of Woelfel’s cases as an attorney have received national attention. One of his lawsuits involved a West Virginia prison guard who had been sued 11 times prior over sexual assault allegations.
“In my law practice I’ve had well over 100 women I’ve represented,” Woelfel said. “I’ve had to sue the state for their having been sexually assaulted in jails and prisons by staff, by guards. I have about 20 of those cases still pending so it’s an ongoing problem.”
Woelfel also referenced a West Virginia University report that a quarter of students surveyed say they have experienced some form of sexual assault.
“This is a pervasive problem,” Woelfel said. “I’m glad we’re going to put it on the front burner.”
The bill of rights legislation that Woelfel is sponsoring would ensure victims in West Virginia are offered a medical forensic examination for free; are informed of its results; that evidence gathered is kept for 20 years and a survivor may request to be notified 60 days before her rape kit is destroyed.
His other bill would mandate a time frame for testing, expand DNA sample collection to those convicted of a violent felony and assure preservation, submission and testing of DNA evidence. Some rape testing kits in West Virginia have been on shelves for 15 years.
There don’t appear to be fiscal notes for either bill. Earlier this year, the West Virginia Division of Justice and Community Services received $1 million in funding from the Office of Justice Programs’ Bureau of Justice Assistance to inventory remaining untested rape kits.
“If it’s sent off the next day for testing to the State Police lab, it can take more than a year for it to even be tested,” Woelfel said. “But that’s unacceptable. That ought to be 60 days or 90 days.”
He said ensuring examination of sexual assault kits through the State Police, Marshall University or West Virginia University — and establishing a timeline — would help resolutions occur faster.
“That rape kit would go to one of those designated labs and be examined and be sent back so there would be a proper resolution of her sexual assault victimization,” Woelfel said.
During an appearance with Woelfel on “The Legislature Today” on West Virginia Public Broadcasting, Nancy Hoffman with the West Virginia Foundation for Rape Information and Services, agreed with Woelfel that more needs to be done.
“Sexual assault is a felony, so it’s a crime against the state, but the focus has tended to be on the criminal justice component of the crime and not on the victim,” Hoffman said.
“It’s important for us to provide support to victims so they’ll come forward and report a sexual assault.”
Woelfel has been trying to get the word out about his bills. He believes the measures will gain momentum.
“I feel confident there will be broad support in the Senate and I’ll be surprised if there isn’t similar support in the House,” he said.