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Reporting and prosecuting rape cases

AMERICAN society and its legal system continue to make measured progress in dealing with the crime of rape. But the need for more improvement remains. Rape is against the law. It is a crime not of passion but of violence, against the person and will of the victim. It is in no way justified by the presence of alcohol, nor by the victim's past behavior, nor by any other supposedly extenuating circumstance.

Across the United States a larger percentage of rape cases than in the past are being reported to police. More are resulting in convictions, most recently a nationally reported case in New Bedford, Mass. Yet only a minority of incidents is even reported - by one estimate as few as 1 in 20. Many victims remain concerned about the treatment they would receive from law-enforcement and judicial systems, despite considerable progress in both areas.

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Sixteen states, beginning with Michigan 10 years ago, now have strong laws to protect victims from intrusions into issues irrelevant to the rape incident. These laws sharply restrict courtroom questions about victims' past conduct and actions prior to the offense.

Another 26 states have modified laws, which still permit some testimony that can have the old-time effect of first putting the victim, not the persons arrested, on trial. The remaining states have no such laws.

All states would do well to adopt the principles of the Michigan law. The act of rape is a violation of the physical privacy of an individual: This should not be compounded by an investigative or judicial violation of other elements of privacy.

News coverage of rape trials should be handled straightforwardly and with restraint. Its focus should be on legal issues rather than on elements of prurient interest. Coverage of the New Bedford case has varied from responsible to exploitative.

Incidents of rape should be reported and prosecuted fully. At the same time sensitive and compassionate handling of each case is required, to differentiate between information that should remain private and that which belongs in the public domain so that responsible court decisions can be reached.

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