- Associated Press - Tuesday, January 13, 2015

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - Police at colleges and universities would be required to report campus sexual assaults to local prosecutors within 48 hours after their investigation begins, under a proposal Virginia lawmakers will consider this year.

The measure aims to get more victims to press charges against their attackers by connecting with them early on with victim services in the commonwealth attorney’s office. The bill would not require campus counselors or other school officials who know about a sexual assault to report it to law enforcement.

“Our victim witness advocates can provide timely counseling and educate a victim about her or his options in going forward with a criminal prosecution. The sooner we can help ease that psychological trauma, the sooner we can help these victims move forward,” said Michael Doucette, Lynchburg’s commonwealth’s attorney, who is supporting the bill.

During a news conference Tuesday, victim advocates and the parents of murdered Virginia Tech student Morgan Harrington threw their support behind the bill. Harrington disappeared in October 2009 after leaving a Metallica concert at the University of Virginia. Her remains were found three months later, about six miles from where missing University of Virginia student Hannah Graham’s remains were found last fall.

The man with whom Graham was last seen, 32-year-old Jesse Leroy Matthew Jr., is charged with abduction with intent to defile Graham. Police have said forensic evidence connects Matthew to Harrington’s killing, which in turn is linked by DNA to a 2005 sexual assault in northern Virginia. Matthew has pleaded not guilty in the 2005 case.

Matthew was a football player at Liberty University in Lynchburg and Christopher Newport University in Newport News. Police at both schools had investigated Matthew for sexual assault, but victims decided not to press charges.

Albemarle County Commonwealth’s Attorney Denise Lunsford is among those who support the proposal.

The bill sponsored by Del. Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Springfield, would only require notifying the commonwealth’s attorney office when an assault happens on a college’s property. That would exclude assaults that occur at nearby off-campus apartments or at fraternity houses that are privately owned. Filler-Corn said the legislation could be expanded upon in the future, but it needs to start somewhere.

Similar measures have failed in the past at the committee level in the Virginia General Assembly. But supporters believe intense public focus on sexual assaults on college campuses in Virginia this past year could tip the scale to secure passage this year.

“We think the stars are lining up right for the bill this year. I’m pleased that we are supporting it 100 percent, because it’s the right thing to do,” said John Jones, executive director of the Virginia Sheriff’s Association.

The bill has some bipartisan support. It is co-sponsored by Del. David Albo, a Springfield Republican, who is the chairman of the Courts of Justice committee.

“This bill strengthens our justice system and encourages collaboration between victims, college staff, police and prosecutors,” Albo said in a statement.

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Brock Vergakis can be reached at www.twitter.com/BrockVergakis

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