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Twelve lawmakers switch votes on similar sexual abuse trial bills

Law and justice concept - Themis statue, judge hammer and books. Courtroom.
NiseriN/Getty Images/iStockphoto
Law and justice concept - Themis statue, judge hammer and books. Courtroom.

Two very similar bills, SB 97 and 98, found two very different results in the statehouse. The only difference – the age of the victim.

Senate Bill 97, a bill to allow a suspect’s prior actions to be used in court during cases involving sexual violence, was killed on the House floor. This week Senate Bill 98, which is the same but for trials involving child sexual abuse, passed the same chamber.

Both bills were sponsored by Rapid City Republican Rep. Becky Drury. She said both aimed to level the legal playing field in sexual abuse trials.

“I think it was a good move for the state of South Dakota, anything we can do to protect children who have been molested is a good step," Drury said. "It’s easier to vote to protect children than almost anything. I think a lot of them felt with the first bill, 97 with sexual assault, it could turn into a he-said-she-said kind of scenario, although that is not what it is. That is absolutely not what that law is.”

Drury said the death of 97 doesn’t mean the end of the wider debate.

“We are going to fight hard for that," Drury said. "We not only need to protect children – we need to protect victims. We need to dispel this myth that it’s somebody just comes up and says, ‘this happened 40 years ago’ and now they’re going to bring it against you. That is absolutely not how or what a judge is going to allow in testimony and bring it back next year and pass it.”

This type of testimony is currently allowed for these cases at the federal level, but not in South Dakota.

Twelve lawmakers switched their votes between 97 and 98 though, including Dakota Dunes Republican Rep. Bill Shorma. He said it’s a matter of communication.

“I gave it a lot of thought and I listened to some of the testimony and the fact that – children don’t even know how to describe appropriately what happened to them," Shorma said. "Children have a difficult time communicating, I want to make sure if there is a situation, it becomes part of the record in court.”

The bill now heads to the governor’s desk.

C.J. Keene is a Rapid City-based journalist covering the legal system, education, and culture