Emory Report

January 11, 1999

 Volume 51, No. 15

Law student Welborn leads effort to reform Georgia rape statutes

Cameron Welborn can't prove it, but all her instincts--not to mention the opinions of toxicologists, law enforcement personnel and rape crisis counselors--tell her that on the night of Halloween 1997, someone dosed her with a sedative such as GHB or Rohypnol, commonly known as "date rape drugs."

She was not raped, though she did become sick and lose consciousness. But it is ironic to note that, if what Welborn suspects actually did happen, whoever was responsible touched off a chain of events that a year-and-a-half later are helping revise Georgia's rape laws, making it easier to prosecute those accused of just such an offense. Quite simply, it was a case of picking the wrong person to drug.

"I didn't want to be a 'victim'--I wanted to do something about it," said Welborn, a third-year law student. The experience drove her to help organize a panel discussion last year at the law school titled "When Drugs are Used for Rape," which led to another panel this month on revising Georgia's rape law, which then led to Welborn and a group of students actually drafting a new law themselves.

"[The bill] will elaborate on definitions of force and consent because the way the law is written now is very basic, and it doesn't go into all the different kinds of scenarios," Welborn said. "The perception people have of rape is the stranger breaking into your house, holding a gun to your head, and you don't know the person; 95 percent of rape cases are acquaintance rapes, and it's very difficult to get convictions because you don't have this list of criteria: 'If the victim reasonably perceived force would be used,' and so on."

Welborn and fellow law students Rachel Brod and Jill Uiberall are drafting a seven-page bill and seeking a sponsor to present the bill to the Georgia Legislature. The last serious effort to reform Georgia's rape laws was a bill that died in the early '90s, and Welborn realizes the challenge she and the two others have undertaken is no ordinary extracurricular project. But the response she's gotten has energized her, as both female and male law students have swelled the ranks of Advocates for Progress Today, the group organizing the Jan. 14 panel, "Updating Georgia's Rape Statutes: A Time for Progress."

"It's been a contagious energy," she said. "Even in the middle of finals, people [were] so willing to help, to take on tasks, to get lists of people for the invitations we'll be sending out. My peers and classmates think it's so exciting that we could actually be a part of initiating some kind of positive change."

Headlining the panel will Georgia Attorney General Thurbert Baker '79L, along with DeKalb Co. District Attorney J. Tom Morgan, Rep. Doug Teper of the state House judiciary committee, Georgia Network to End Sexual Assault Director Liz Flowers and other individuals in criminal justice, law enforcement, rape crisis and health care. Many on the panel have advised Welborn in putting together the bill, and she defers credit to them along with Emory mentors like law school Professor Jan Pratt and Women's Center Director Ali Crown.

"If there is success in this--and there already has been in that people are talking about it--but if legislation is successfully passed, I attribute it to everybody who has jumped on board," Welborn said. "I'm very well aware of how lucky I am to work with the people I'm working with, [people with] their level of expertise. On a daily basis I'm amazed by the women's groups, and the men too, who are jumping on board. It's sort of overwhelming."

It may be something she should get used to, since Welborn hopes eventually to carve a career out of shaping public policy. In the short term, she's due to graduate this spring and will return to her native California to work in the San Diego County district attorney's office. Her parents still live upstate in the house in which she grew up in Redding, and Welborn's voice turns wistful when she talks about home. "It's such an amazing place," she said. "It's so different from southern California, just mountains and lakes, so calming and serene."

Indeed, her life has been anything but calming since fall of 1996. Asked about her law school experience, she said, "I've been very active in extracurricular activities. As a first-year law student, I volunteered at the Atlanta Volunteer Lawyers Foundation, and last year I was president of the Emory Public Interest Committee. So when I'm not doing those things, I try to get, you know, studying done."

Welborn's schedule doesn't figure to slow down, especially if her bill makes its way onto Gov. Roy Barnes' desk this year. She wanted to go into law because she wanted "to help make things better," and there are a growing number of people who think revamping Georgia's sexual assault statutes will do just that.

"So many politicians and policy-makers go into it for the wrong reasons, the money and the power and that kind of thing, and I think that's sickening," she said. "There are so many ways to help people, but I thought this was a way where I could help eventually on a larger scale."

--Michael Terrazas

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