Court to look at definition of “physically helpless person”

The Connecticut Supreme Court will hear a closely watched sexual assault case October 17 that many disability advocacy groups fear could set the bar too high to prove sexual assault against people with disabilities.

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News from Connecticut

The individual at the center of a case is a 26-year-old, 95-pound woman with cerebral palsy. She is unable to speak verbally and communicates only with motions in her right index finger. She requires assistance with feeding, bathing and many other life activities.

In 2005, she was allegedly sexually assaulted by a 28-year-old man at her home. At the trial court level, where she responded to the prosecutor  via a board printed with letters and the words “yes” and “no” at the top, the man was convicted.

The appellate court reversed, saying that the man can not be convicted of sexually assaulting a person who is “physically helpless” because she did not meet the definition.

“To manifest her displeasure, she can kick, bite and scratch,” the ruling said. “The complainant can also vocalize her feelings by groaning or screeching.”

The  decision prompted outrage by disability and domestic violence advocates.

“In this particular case, the appellate court decision literally says this woman isn’t physically helpless because we know for a fact that she can kick and she can bite and she can scratch,” and she would have done so if she did not consent,” Anna Doroghazi, director of public policy and communication for Connecticut Sexual Assault Crisis Services, told in the Connecticut Post. “If you applied that to a typical able-bodied person, we would never say, ‘You weren’t raped because you didn’t bite this guy.’ We don’t require anyone else in the population to take every single measure to say no.”

Other advocates fear a ruling upholding the appellate decision could make it even more challenging to prove sexual assault against people with disabilities, whom are already assaulted at a significantly higher rate than the rest of the population.

“If this decision were allowed to stand, it would serve to discourage prosecutors from bringing charges and people with disabilities from coming forward with complaints,” said James McGaughey, executive director of the state Office of Protection and Advocacy for Person with Disabilities, according to an article in the Connecticut Post.

The Office of Protection and Advocacy for Person with Disabilities is part of the federally funded protection and advocacy system and a member of the National Disability Rights Network

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