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Woman's fight for justice ends 'marital rape' exception

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Jenny Teeson, who testified about being drugged, raped by her ex-husband
Jenny Teeson, who testified in front of various committees earlier this session about being drugged and raped by her ex-husband, thanked Sen. John Hoffman, D-Champlin, right and Rep. Zack Stephenson, D-Coon Rapids, left, outside the Senate Monday. Behind her are her mom Terri and father Jerry Teeson.
Glen Stubbe | Star Tribune via AP

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 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 said. "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."

It's a hard story for Teeson to tell, but she's been making the rounds at the Minnesota Capitol anyway, convincing lawmakers to change a law she said prevented her from getting justice.

Gov. Tim Walz is expected to sign a measure this week that repeals a little-known provision in law that shields people from prosecution in cases where they rape their spouse. The House and Senate passed the proposal unanimously, part of a broader push to change and roll back outdated laws on the books related to sexual harassment and assault.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. Back then, men believed 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.

Women's' 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 enforcement varies widely from state to state. "There's these little loopholes and substatutes that hide deep in the books that pop out every once and awhile," Teeson said.

Jenny Teeson stands in front of the State Capitol.
Jenny Teeson stands in front of the State Capitol.
Briana Bierschbach | MPR News

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. It does allow prosecution if the couple is living apart and one of them has 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," said Rep. Zach Stephenson, DFL-Coon Rapids, who carried the House bill to eliminate the exception.

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

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

They had to drop those charges, and 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. Teeson said he should be registered as a sex offender.

"His actions and his diagnoses are deeply concerning," she said. "And there are just no safety parameters as it stands now."

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.

At first, Teeson said she didn't speak out about early warning signs about husband's behavior because she was afraid she would be judged by her acquaintances. She'd only known good relationships all her life, so she thought they could work it out. They went through rounds of therapy, even while she was going to the doctor for persistent stomach issues that she believes were related to the drugs he used to sedate her.

"This is supposed to be my most intimate partner, my ride or die," Teeson said. "This is supposed to be the person I'm supposed to trust, and they are the ones who are hurting me."

Jenny Teeson at the State Capitol in February 2019.
Jenny Teeson reacted with tears of joy in February as the Minnesota House of Representatives unanimously passed a bill that would immediately allow the law to recognize that a spouse can be prosecuted for raping their spouse.
Renee Jones Schneider | Star Tribune via AP file

The bill was vetoed last year in a larger budget bill, so Teeson decided to become a regular at the Capitol this year to make sure it passed. She met with legislators and testified in committees. She said even the lobbyists have started to recognize her.

It's a rare spot of bipartisanship this session in Minnesota, which has the only divided Legislature left in the nation.

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," Teeson said, breaking into tears. "It just solidified that what I'm doing is right and that one person's voice can really make a difference."