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A West Virginia bill to remove marital exemption for sexual abuse wins final passage

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — Certain sexual assaults against a spouse would be criminalized in West Virginia for the first time under a bill passed Friday by the Republican-dominated House of Delegates.

The bill would remove marriage as a defense to first- and third-degree sexual assault. The House passed the bill without debate on a unanimous vote, sending it to Republican Gov. Jim Justice, who has not indicated whether he would sign it.

The bill previously passed the state Senate. The sponsor, GOP Sen. Ryan Weld of Brooke County, is a former prosecutor.

Until 1976, a married person couldn’t be charged with penetratively raping their spouse. That law was changed at the urging of the former Republican Sen. Judith Herndon, then the only woman in the Legislature.

Weld explained there are two crimes of sexual violence outlined in state code: penetrative rape, and secondly, the forcible touching of a person’s sexual organs, breasts, buttocks or anus by another person.

For the latter offense, a martial exemption shields a person from conviction if the crime is perpetrated against their spouse. Even if the couple is legally separated, an individual accused of such sexual abuse couldn’t be charged.