This Woman Fought To End Minnesota's 'Marital Rape' Exception, And Won

Jenny Teeson says her husband made plenty of sexual requests during their marriage that made her uncomfortable but she didn't discover until they were going through a divorce that he raped her.

She was reviewing files on his hard drive and made a shocking discovery: four videos he filmed raping her while she lay unconscious. In one video, the camera zooms in on Teeson's face and lying next to her in the bed is her young son.

"He was next to me and I have no idea because I was so out cold," she says. "This person, who I'm supposed to trust, would drug me and make me be so out cold that I couldn't respond if something was wrong with my children."

Teeson says it's a hard story to tell but she's been making the rounds at the Minnesota Capitol convincing lawmakers to change a law she says prevented her from getting justice.

Thursday, Gov. Tim Walz, a Democrat, signed the bill that repeals a little-known provision in law shielding people from prosecution in cases where they rape their spouse. It's part of a broader push in the wake of the #MeToo movement to change and roll back outdated laws on the books related to sexual harassment and assault.

What's known as the marital rape exception can be traced back hundreds of years to British common law, which was eventually imported to American colonies. Then, it was believed that a woman's unconditional sexual consent was just part of the marriage contract.

Most states had marital rape exceptions as part of their law until 1979. That's when a Massachusetts bartender broke into the home he used to share with his estranged wife and raped her. The case led to the first marital rape conviction in the nation.

Womens' rights groups campaigned state-by-state for lawmakers to change their laws, and by 1993, marital rape was technically illegal in all 50 states. But, "there's these little loopholes and sub-statutes that hide deep in the books that pop out every once and awhile," Teeson says.

Until this law, Minnesota prevented someone from being prosecuted if they are in a "voluntary sexual relationship" at the time of the alleged offense, or if the complainant is the actor's legal spouse. The state did allow prosecution if the couple lived apart and one of them had filed for legal separation.

"We like to think of marital rape exceptions as an artifact of history, as a relic of a time when a woman was considered the property of her husband," says Democratic Rep. Zack Stephenson, a prosecutor who carried the House bill to eliminate the exception.

Roughly a dozen states shield a spouse from prosecution in a rape case, including South Carolina, where a married victim has to prove a threat of physical violence within 30 days of the rape. Ohio lawmakers are also debating removing a marital rape exception on their law books.

Teeson went to law enforcement after she discovered the videos. They planned to charge her ex-husband with sexual assault, but she says that's when his attorney discovered the loophole.

"We were all dumbfounded," Teeson says. "The county attorney's office didn't know it, and the judge didn't know that this law existed."

It just solidified that what I'm doing is right and that one person's voice can really make a difference. - Jenny Teeson

Ultimately, her ex-husband was convicted of invasion of privacy in the case. That came with a 45-day jail sentence, of which he served less than 30 days.

The Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission estimates repealing the exception will result in seven additional convictions each year. The National Sexual Violence Resource Center said more than 50 percent of female victims of rape report being assaulted by their partner.

The bill was vetoed last year in a larger budget bill, so Teeson says she decided to become a regular at the Capitol this year to make sure it passed. She met with legislators and testified in committees.

It's a rare spot of bipartisanship this session in Minnesota, which has the only divided legislature in the country.

Teeson was up in the gallery with her parents for the House vote. In an unusual move, the entire chamber turned in their seats after the vote to face her, breaking into a round of applause.

"I don't think I've seen my dad cry, ever. And my mom and my dad and I looked at the board and within two seconds, three seconds, the whole board lit up green," she says, breaking into tears. "It just solidified that what I'm doing is right and that one person's voice can really make a difference."

Copyright 2019 MPR News. To see more, visit MPR News.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Minnesota is one of about a dozen states where a spouse can be shielded from prosecution when they rape their partner. It's an exception in the law that dates back decades. But this week, the governor signed a bill to change that. Minnesota Public Radio's Briana Bierschbach says that comes mostly because of the efforts of one woman. And a warning to our listeners - there are details in the beginning of this story you may find disturbing.

BRIANA BIERSCHBACH, BYLINE: Jenny Teeson's husband made plenty of sexual requests during their marriage that made her uncomfortable. But she didn't find out until they were going through a divorce that he had raped her. She was reviewing files on his computer hard drive and made a shocking discovery - four videos he filmed raping her while she lay unconscious. In one video, the camera zooms in on Teeson's face. And lying next to her in the bed is her son, a toddler.

JENNY TEEESON: He was next to me. And I had no idea because I was so out cold.

BIERSCHBACH: It's a hard story for Teeson to tell. This part brings her to tears nearly every time. But she's been making the rounds at the Minnesota Capitol anyway, telling her story enough times that lawmakers are now changing a law she says prevented her from getting justice.

TEESON: Oh, it just solidified that what I'm doing is right and that one person's voice can really make a difference.

BIERSCHBACH: It's called the marital rape exception. It shields spouses from prosecutions in cases where they rape their partner. The origin of exceptions like this can be traced back hundreds of years to British common law, eventually imported to American colonies. Back then, men believed a woman's unconditional sexual consent was just part of the marriage contract.

ZACK STEPHENSON: I can recall learning in law school about 17th century English common law principle that a husband could never be convicted of raping his wife.

BIERSCHBACH: That's Zack Stephenson, a freshman Democrat in Minnesota who's carrying the bill to eliminate the exception.

STEPHENSON: Because by consenting to marry, quote, "the wife hath given up herself to her husband."

BIERSCHBACH: Most states had marital rape exceptions as part of their law until 1979. That's when a Massachusetts bartender broke into the home he used to share with his estranged wife and raped her. The case led to the first marital rape conviction in the nation. By 1993, women's rights groups pushed to make marital rape illegal in all 50 states. But Jenny Teeson says enforcement still varied widely from state to state.

TEESON: There's these little loopholes and sub-statutes that hide deep in the books that pop out every once in a while.

BIERSCHBACH: Minnesota still prevents someone from being prosecuted if they are in a voluntary sexual relationship at the time of the alleged offense or if the complainant is the actor's legal spouse. Teeson went to the authorities after she discovered the videos of the rape. But her ex-husband's attorney discovered the loophole in law. Ultimately, he was convicted of invasion of privacy in the case and served less than 30 days in jail. The state estimates repealing the exception will result in seven additional convictions each year. The National Sexual Violence Resource Center said more than 50% of female victims of rape report being assaulted by their partner.

TEESON: This was my - supposed to be my most intimate partner, my ride or die. This is the person who I'm supposed to be able to trust. And they're the one who's hurting me.

BIERSCHBACH: Teeson became a regular at the Capitol this year to change the law. She met with legislators and testified in committees. She says even the lobbyists have started to recognize her. Both the House and Senate passed the bill unanimously. Teeson was up in the House gallery with her parents for the vote.

TEESON: I don't think I've seen my dad cry - ever. And we all - my mom, my dad and I - looked at the board. And within two seconds, three seconds, the whole board lit up green.

BIERSCHBACH: In an unusual move, the entire House turned in their seats to acknowledge Teeson after the vote.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: The bill has passed and its title agreed to.

(APPLAUSE)

BIERSCHBACH: For NPR News, I'm Briana Bierschbach in St. Paul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.