DES MOINES, Iowa » When Henry and Donna Lou Rayhons married seven years ago in their northern Iowa hometown, it was a second chance at love for the devoted couple, both previously widowed. But their domestic routine of church activities and political functions unraveled as Donna’s health began to fail.
Last year, the 78-year-old woman was moved into a nursing home, suffering from dementia and Alzheimers. According to Henry Rayhon’s family, this was decided by her daughters from a previous marriage. Conflict developed over how to care for Donna Lou Rayhons, culminating in a meeting in which staff told Henry Rayhons that his wife was no longer mentally capable of legally consenting to have sex.
State prosecutors say Henry Rayhons — a long-serving state lawmaker — ignored that message. On Wednesday, he will stand trial for sexually assaulting his wife, who died last August. The charges were filed days after she died.
Many couples experience the hardships of illness, mental decline and living apart, but what happened with the Rayhons has little precedent. Experts could not think of another rape case that happened because a previously consenting spouse could no longer legally acquiesce.
"This is the first one I’ve seen," said Mark Kosieradzki, a Minneapolis-based attorney who has tried numerous cases of sexual abuse in nursing homes. "It’s a case that’s going to be focusing on the rights of the vulnerable. Just because you’re married, it doesn’t mean you need to check your consent rights at the door."
Through an attorney, Donna Lou Rayhons’ daughters declined to discuss the case. The state Attorney General’s office also declined. And Henry Rayhons, who has said that he is innocent, refused an interview through a son.
Last summer, when the charges were first filed, Henry Rayhons’ family released a statement.
"Donna’s location did not change Dad’s love for Donna nor her love for him. It did not change their marriage relationship. And so he continued to have contact with his spouse in the nursing home; who among us would not," read the statement, which went on to call the charges "illogical and unnatural."
The crux of the case is the question of Donna Lou Rayhons’ ability to consent. Iowa law defines an act as sexual abuse in the third degree if the two parties are not living together as husband and wife and if one person "is suffering from a mental defect or incapacity which precludes giving consent."
Elizabeth Edgerly, a clinical psychologist who serves as chief program officer for the nonprofit Alzheimer’s Association, said determining capacity is challenging.
"Is the person capable of saying no if they don’t want to do something? That’s one of the biggest pieces," said Edgerly, who frequently lectures on sexuality and Alzheimer’s.
But Edgerly also noted that patients can vary day to day and said that physical closeness can be reassuring to many, noting: "For most people with dementia, even long into the disease, they take comfort in being with people who love them."
Rayhons is charged with sexual abuse in the third degree and could serve up to ten years in prison if convicted. Shortly before the charges were filed, Rayhons withdrew from a race to serve a tenth term in the Iowa House of Representatives.
The Iowa attorney general’s office sought to move the trial out of Hancock County, where Rayhons lives, arguing that they would not be able to find an impartial jury after the extensive news coverage. But a judge denied the request.
Court documents provide a window into the bitter case, which has left a blended family divided.
In late March of last year, Donna Lou Rayhons moved to a nursing home in Garner. The clashes over her care built until a meeting in May during which Henry Rayhons was informed of his wife’s inability to consent. According to court documents, Henry Rayhons entered his wife’s room about a week later, pulled the curtains around her bed and a roommate heard noises that suggested sexual activity. As Rayhons left, he dropped undergarments in a laundry basket.
Not long after that incident, one of Donna Rayhons’ adult daughters went to court and won temporary guardianship.
A state crime lab found semen stains on Donna Lou Rayhons’ quilt and a sheet that matched Henry Rayhons’ genetic profile. The charging document says he confessed to sexual activity that night, but in an interview last year on the Dr. Drew On Call show on the HLN network, his son Dale Rayhons said the police interview was taken out of context.
Dale Rayhons said in a recent statement to The Associated Press that he supports his father, adding that: "to have found love and companionship this late in their lives was an extraordinary and special thing for both Dad and Donna."