West Virginia governor signs law removing marital assault exemption

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — Certain sexual assaults against a spouse will now be criminalized in West Virginia for the first time under a law signed Friday by Republican Gov. Jim Justice.

The law removes marriage as a defense to first- and third-degree sexual assault.

Until 1976, a married person couldn’t be charged with the penetrative rape of their spouse. That law was changed at the urging of then-Republican Sen. Judith Herndon, at the time the only woman in the Legislature.

The bill's sponsor, GOP Sen. Ryan Weld of Brooke County, said there are two crimes of sexual violence outlined in state code: penetrative rape, and secondly, the forcible touching of a person’s sexual organs, breasts, buttocks or anus by another person.

For the latter offense, a martial exemption long shielded a person from conviction if the crime was perpetrated against their spouse. Even if the couple is legally separated, an individual accused of such sexual abuse couldn’t be charged. That will change now that Justice has signed the legislation.