Politicians Say the Darndest Things

James J. Wilkerson, J.D.
Feb 24 · 7 min read
Photo from Pixabay

A while ago I highlighted some of the underresearched, longshot statements that attorneys have made in regard to sexual assault. Adjacent to the legal world is the political one. And in an environment where soundbites and posturing are common currency, the ground is ripe for politicians to make just as many head scratching statements about sexual assault as their legal counterparts. Often desperate, commonly offensive, and always cringeworthy, here are some of the darndest things politicians have said about sexual assault.

Forensic Findings

We begin deep in the heart of Texas where everything is bigger, including the gaffes that come from politicians’ mouths. As I’ve said numerous times before, anytime someone goes on a crusade against women’s rights, a cringeworthy comment is right around the corner. This was true in 2013 as Texas law makers labored over a restrictive anti-abortion bill. When an exemption was proposed for women who were rape victims, State Representative and sponsor of the bill Jodie Laubenberg claimed such an exemption was unnecessary due to rape kits. Laubenberg stated that, “in the emergency room they have what’s called rape kits, where a woman can get cleaned out.”

After receiving a hearty round of mocking for her statement, Laubenberg would claim that she had been confused by the Democrat who was asking her questions and misspoke. To most, however, it was clear that Laubenberg’s true confusion was about the exact purpose and utilization of rape kits.

In the 1970’s there was no standard method to collect forensic evidence. There also was a lack of understanding of the psychological effects of sexual assault. If a woman didn’t appear especially traumatized following an assault, her case was often dismissed. Enter Martha Goodard, a sexual assault survivor who interviewed numerous medical, legal, and law enforcement experts on a mission to find a uniform way to collect evidence that would be crucial for convictions. Through her friendship with Hugh Hefner’s daughter Christie, the Playboy Foundation provided the initial funding for the first rape kits. The kit itself was developed by Louis Vitullo and consists of a container that includes a checklist, materials, and instructions for whoever is overseeing the procedure. It also includes envelopes and containers to package any specimens collected during the exam. The first kit was utilized in 1978 in an Illinois hospital, and today the kits are widely available[1].

You would think the chair of the House Committee on Public Health in Texas would have a base understanding that a forensic exam and abortion are not the same thing. But you would be wrong. Laubenberg ended her career in the Texas house, retiring in 2019.

Worse Than Rape

Next, we go to 2016 with Kentucky’s Senate Bill 150 which set out to include local law enforcement as persons authorized to collect DNA samples. The bill also aimed to allow for the collection of DNA samples at arrest or initial appearance from all persons charged with a felony offense. As with any bill that is up for Senate consideration, there is a period of testimony for either support or opposition of the Bill in question. In expressing his opposition, then-Majority Caucus Leader, Senator Dan Seum, stated, “I can tell you, and I understand your pain, but I can tell you, and I have eight children and twenty-one grandkids that, over the years, this government through its intrusion has done more damage to me than any of these criminals out there ever did.” Keep in mind this statement was uttered in a hearing that included testimony from a mother whose daughter was raped, murdered, and set on fire by her attacker.

In August of 2003, Katie Sepich was out with her friends celebrating the beginning of grad school at New Mexico University. After getting into an argument with her boyfriend, she stormed off and by the time her friends awoke the next morning, she was nowhere to be found. After a morning of calling hospitals, jailhouses, and frantically searching for Katie, her remains were found near a local landfill. She had been sexually assaulted, strangled, and in an attempt to destroy the evidence, burned. A DNA sample found under Katie’s nails led authorities a year later to Gabriel Avila. Avila had been in prison since November 2004 and while there, finally submitted a DNA sample that matched the DNA taken from Katie.

Katie’s mother Jayann is credited with working on what would eventually be called Katie’s Law. At the time of her daughter’s death, DNA was taken only after someone was convicted of a crime. Under Katie’s Law, DNA would be taken at the time of arrest for a felony. Had Katie’s Law been in effect at the time Katie Sepich was murdered, her killer would have been caught within months of his crime. The law was passed in 2006. In 2008, Jayaan Sepich and her husband David founded DNA Saves, a nonprofit organization committed to working with every state to pass laws to expand the DNA database and fund DNA programs. As of 2020, 25 states have passed Katie’s Law, or an equivalent.

Politicians (and humans in general) have long been criticized for not caring about issues that don’t effect them. Despite Seum claiming his he understands the pain of someone effected by sexual assault, his comment certainly does not reflect empathy with the matter. Fortunately for him, he was able to shed the burdening trauma of government overreach when he retired from the State Senate in 2019. But even Seum himself would thumb his nose at our final subject.

Parting Gift

Staying in the Bluegrass State, we end with the former Governor of our great Commonwealth. Who knew that waging war against the state’s teachers wouldn’t be a wise campaign strategy? But in November 2019, Matt Bevin found himself defeated and on a one-way ticket out of Frankfort. While an outgoing governor handing out pardons is a common practice, it is a bit eyebrow raising to see convicted murderers and hitman employers on the list. Equally as alarming are convicted child rapists such as Kenton County’s Micah Schoettle. In 2018, Schoettle was found guilty of the rape, sodomy, and sexual abuse of a young girl, with the assault beginning when the girl was just nine years old. While he was sentenced to 23 years imprisonment, he would only serve 18 months after receiving a pardon from the outgoing governor. While asked how he could pardon a convicted child rapist, Bevin would respond by saying “which one?” And while that statement alone deserves its own article, Bevin’s comments about Schoettle’s victim is what lands him here. Bevin stated that he based his pardon on the fact the young girl’s “hymen was still intact.” The former Governor would continue saying, “this is perhaps more specific than people would want, but trust me. If you have been repeatedly sexually violated as a small child by an adult, there are going to be repercussions of that physically and medically.”

Using an intact hymen as evidence of sexual activity is not an uncommon mistake for a layperson. In 2019, rapper and entrepreneur T.I. drew many justified claims of misogyny when he revealed that he regularly takes his 18-year-old daughter (an adult that is certainly able to make her own decisions about sex) to the gynecologist to make sure her hymen (and thus her virginity) is still intact. While that may fly in the Harris household, one would think the standard for pardoning a crime carrying a 23-year prison sentence would be a bit higher than layperson opinion.

Just as they are utilized in the courtroom, expert opinions are a very helpful tool at an elected official’s disposal in helping to explain issues on a scientific, technical or specialized level. Regarding using the state of the hymen to prove sexual assault, Dr. Caitlin Thomas, an OB-GYN resident in Indiana, states the following:

“I know it’s not surprising to you, but I believe that the former Governor doesn’t know what he is talking about. Testing for an intact hymen is not a proper or valid way to test for rape. Just as a transected hymen cannot be used to confirm prior sexual activity, the presence of an intact hymen cannot confirm no sexual activity. The hymen is a ring of mucous membrane surrounding the introitus, or opening, of the vagina. Sexual intercourse can happen without tearing of the hymen and cannot be used to rule out penetrative sexual assault. Though it may not have been relevant to this specific case, it is very important to note that sexual assault can occur without penetrative vaginal intercourse.”

Expert opinions are not difficult to obtain and should be utilized when a decision maker lacks factual knowledge on a decision they are making, such as releasing a convicted child molester back into society with little punishment and no rehabilitation. However, when you are on a salt-the-Earth farewell tour that includes pardoning the crimes of people who have financially supported your past campaigns, perhaps expert opinions aren’t your number one priority.

Conclusion

Medical experts play a variety of roles. In addition to serving the health needs of the general public, they typically know a great deal about their field. Whether it is understanding the utilization of DNA in sexual assault cases or bathing a layperson opinion in a scientific light, medical experts are here to help. All it takes is the calming of the ego and a simple ask to avoid saying one of the darndest things about sexual assault.

Or freeing a convicted child molester.

[1] Despite the availability of rape kits, backlogging is a major problem. Tens of thousands of rape kits go untested with states seeking legislation to combat the issue.

I Taught the Law

I Taught the Law

Lawyers, law professors, students, and other legal professionals bring you the untold stories of the rules, institutions, and people that govern our lives (without too much legalese).

James J. Wilkerson, J.D.

Written by

James is the Director of Equity, Diversity and Title IX at Indiana University Southeast. He is a columnist at the I Taught the Law legal journal on Medium.

I Taught the Law

Lawyers, law professors, students, and other legal professionals bring you the untold stories of the rules, institutions, and people that govern our lives (without too much legalese).

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