In powerful testimony, sexual violence victims ask Minnesota lawmakers for changes

The state Capitol is rarely a quiet place during the legislative session, but Jenny Teeson’s story made an entire room fall silent.

Teeson told the House Public Safety committee that her then-husband had drugged and raped her in 2016. She said she later found two video recordings of the incident during the couple’s divorce proceedings. But Minnesota law prohibited prosecutors from seeking a conviction for criminal sexual misconduct because the two were married.

“I was devastated and scared,” said Teeson, of Andover. “The next morning, I was ready to go to work to make sure no one in a similar situation hears, ‘I’m sorry, the charges have been dropped.’”

Teeson’s story is one of several that are forcing state lawmakers to consider changes to Minnesota’s sexual violence laws. Lawmakers are also deciding whether to create a task force to focus on missing and murdered Native American women, make it a crime to touch a person’s clothed buttocks with sexual intent, and change the way sexual assault victims are treated during police investigations.

Teeson’s ex-husband pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor crime of invasion of privacy. His attorney declined comment for this story.

State Rep. Zack Stevenson, DFL-Coon Rapids, said the Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission has estimated that seven women fall victim to the so-called “voluntary relationship” exception every year.

Without opposition, the House Public Safety committee approved a change that would eliminate the exception so spouses could be charged with sexual conduct crimes.

Though Minnesota has the country’s only divided state Legislature, some of the sexual violence bills have bipartisan support. A few – including the voluntary relationship legislation and the Native American women task force measure – passed the Legislature in 2018 in a year-end omnibus bill that then-Gov. Mark Dayton vetoed.

“I beg everyone in this room, everyone at this committee, everybody that can hear my voice right now, do not let this bill become a bargaining chip on the table at the end of session,” said Mysti Babineau of White Bear Lake.

Babineau said she was kidnapped and raped as a 20-year-old. She said many Native American women have been victims of sexual violence, and advocated for the creation of a task force on the issue.

The committee also passed that legislation without opposition. Both the voluntary relationship bill and the task force measure next head to the Judiciary committee, and several lawmakers said they did not want to see them wrapped into another end-of-session omnibus bill.

“These issues are far too important to buried inside other quote bigger issues. These are big issues,” said state Rep. Carlos Mariani, DFL-St. Paul. “There’s a real strong feeling that there’s unfinished business.”

Lawmakers thanked the women for coming forward to testify, then had tough words for perpetrators of sexual violence.

“If you are a man and you go buy sex, this is what you’re doing. This is what you’re doing,” said state Rep. Marion O’Neill, R-Maple Lake.