In fourth year trying, sexual assault bill clears House

The House on Tuesday unanimously passed a bill intended to make it easier to prosecute sexual assault cases with victims who were physically unable to resist. The measure now moves to the Senate.

The proposal was inspired by the case of Richard Fourtin, a Bridgeport man accused of sexually assaulting a 25-year-old woman he helped care for, who had cerebral palsy and mental retardation and could not walk or talk.

A jury convicted Fourtin of attempted second-degree sexual assault and fourth-degree sexual assault under a statute prohibiting sexual contact with a person who is physically helpless. But an appellate court overturned the conviction, and the Connecticut Supreme Court upheld that ruling last fall. The reasoning: Because the woman could communicate by biting, kicking, screaming or pointing to letters on a board to spell words, she was not completely unable to express unwillingness.

Advocates for sexual assault victims and people with disabilities were outraged by the ruling, but Chief State’s Attorney Kevin Kane said earlier this year that the problem is that state law narrowly defines “physically helpless,” requiring a person be unconscious or physically unable to communicate unwillingness. He said that makes some cases impossible to prosecute.

The bill the House passed Tuesday would expand the definition of “physically helpless” to cover someone who is “physically unable to resist an act of sexual intercourse or sexual contact.”

“This bill will go a long way towards helping prosecutors in dealing with these cases that involve victims who are physically or developmentally disabled,” said Rep. Gerald Fox III, co-chairman of the Judiciary Committee.

This is the fourth year legislators have considered a bill on the subject. Supporters said they believe this year’s proposal is more likely to succeed because the Supreme Court’s ruling last fall provided a clearer sense of how the revised definition should be worded.

Advocates have said it’s important that the definition be written carefully so as not to inadvertently criminalize consensual sexual activity by people with disabilities.