Missouri legislation that created the “Sexual Assault Survivors’ Bill of Rights” was argued in a court hearing 10 a.m. Tuesday.
Mary Fox, director of the Missouri State Public Defender System, along with four public defenders and three men charged with sexual offenses, are suing the state of Missouri and Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt over the legislation.
The “Sexual Assault Survivors’ Bill of Rights” outlines rights regarding medical examinations, forensic evidence and interviews. The bill of rights states survivors are supposed to be informed of their rights in a document developed by the Department of Public Safety.
The prosecution called three witnesses, who voiced concerns that Senate Bill 569 would create a series of conflicts of interest.
In her testimony, Fox said providing a survivor with written information regarding their rights could imply disloyalty to defense attorneys’ clients. Additionally, Fox said complying with the “Sexual Assault Survivors’ Bill of Rights” could put her and other defense attorneys in violation of the Missouri Rules of Professional Conduct.
Fox expressed worry about having to provide legal advice to individuals that defense attorneys do not represent.
“It puts us in a position where our clients’ interests are not at the center of our responsibility, and our clients’ interests always have to be at the center of our responsibility,” Fox said.
Fox also discussed ambiguity in the definition of a “survivor” as outlined in the legislation. She argued that under the current definition, her own clients may also be considered “survivors,” which could further promote a conflict of interest.
During cross-examination, Paul Brown, chief counsel for the Office of the Missouri Attorney General, argued that informing survivors of their rights exhibits parallels to the reading of Miranda Rights.
In their testimonies, two assistant public defenders who are also challenging the legislation, Megan Beesley and Erich Fonke, expressed concerns that having a support individual or employee/volunteer of a rape crisis center present in an interview with a survivor could influence their responses.
The defense called expert Laura Dunn to testify. Dunn is a victims’ rights attorney, founding partner of L.L. Dunn Law Firm PLLC in Washington, D.C., and a survivor of sexual assault. Dunn testified about the importance of improving the criminal justice system through providing survivors with clearly outlined rights.
“We have to have a system that’s responsive to survivors — and we don’t,” Dunn said. “We force survivors into a system, and we use them in whatever way we want. We don’t allow them autonomy, information and rights when accessing that system, and attorneys such as myself have made entire careers and focuses on ensuring that survivors are not pieces of evidence.”
The judge overseeing the lawsuit, Patricia Joyce from Cole County Circuit Court, has not yet released a ruling.
The hearing took place over Cisco WebEx, a video conference platform, where members from Rise were present, including CEO and founder Amanda Nguyen. The national nonprofit drafted model legislation that helped to create the “Sexual Assault Survivors’ Bill of Rights.”