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Simotas wants common ground on rape bills

State Assemblywoman Aravella Simotas (l.) and anti-abuse advocate Andrew Willis (r.) listen as rape survivor Lydia Cuomo (c.) speaks in favor of Simotas' bill that would expand the legal definition of rape. Photo courtesy Simotas
TimesLedger Newspapers

State Assemblywoman Aravella Simotas (D-Astoria) is pushing a bill to expand the legal definition of rape as well as a compromise with a rival bill in the state Senate.

Simotas’ “Rape Is Rape” bill, written in 2012 and re-introduced for this legislative session, was inspired by the Bronx trial of NYPD officer Michael Pena. Pena held schoolteacher Lydia Cuomo at gunpoint, threatened her life and forcibly sodomized her, but was convicted by a jury of sexual assault rather than rape, which is defined by law as forcible vaginal penetration.

“If somebody has to experience the heinous violation that Lydia Cuomo experienced and be told that she wasn’t raped, it didn’t sit well with me,” Simotas said.

Cuomo, who recently revealed her identity to the public, introduced herself to Simotas near the end of the last legislative session. She spoke in Albany last week on behalf of Simotas’ bill, which would expand rape in the first, second and third degrees to include oral, anal and aggravated sexual contact.

“It was very important to her that the legislation get passed so the law could acknowledge what she went through,” Simotas said.

In the Senate, Sen. Catharine Young (R-Olean) has also introduced a bill to expand the definition of rape but her bill defines rape as any forcible contact between the penis and the vagina. The current law requires penetration for a rape conviction.

Young’s bill has the support of Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance. In a letter to Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre) and Independent Democratic Conference Leader Jeffrey Klein (D-Bronx) on behalf of the state District Attorneys Association, he said Young’s expansion could mean the difference between a 25-year and a seven-year sentence for the perpetrator.

Vance also said if a victim is violated vaginally and orally, the latter crime would be a criminal sex act and could hit the perpetrator with more time for a separate charge. Simotas’ bill could have the unintended effect of lumping both violations together as one act of rape.

Young said in a statement she appreciated the support of the state’s district attorneys.

“I admire Assemblywoman Simotas’ efforts to help rape victims and look forward to working together towards an effective solution and positive result to protect all New Yorkers,” Young said.

Simotas said both issues should not be considered in a vacuum. She said the state Legislature is working on a new bill to address both concerns and that she hopes the body will take Cuomo’s story of her attack and subsequent pain into account.

“There’s no reason why we have to prevent survivors of sexual assault from healing,” she said.

Reach reporter Rebecca Henely by e-mail at rhenely@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4564.

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