Fueled by sexual abuse allegations against comedian Bill Cosby and the Catholic Church, and other high-profile cases dating back decades, state legislators across the country are considering lengthening or eliminating statutes of limitations on rape.
Statutes of limitations, which exist for most crimes besides murder, are intended to encourage the timely reporting of crimes. As time passes, evidence deteriorates or gets lost, memories fade and witnesses die.
But it can take years for sexual abuse victims to find the courage to come forward. Advocates for victims say statutes of limitations for rape and sexual assaults are arbitrary and outdated, and note that police departments across the country are still digging through a backlog of rape kits, some of which are three decades old.
Forty-three states have statutes of limitations for sex crimes, according to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network. Of the states with statutes, 27 include an exception that allows prosecutors to file charges when there is DNA evidence. State statutes of limitations often range from three years to 12 years, but in some states, accusers have more time to come forward when they say they were abused as children — until they are 21 in some states or as old as 50 in others. Some states don’t start the clock until the victim turns 18.
Legislators in states such as California, Illinois, New York, Oklahoma and Pennsylvania are currently considering bills that would extend statutes of limitations for rape and sexual assault or eliminate them entirely.
In Pennsylvania, where the statute of limitations is 12 years in adult rape and sexual assault cases, prosecutors late last year beat the deadline by just weeks when they charged Cosby for a crime he allegedly committed in 2004. Backers of a bill that would eliminate the statute of limitations for people abused as children have pointed to the Cosby case, and to an attorney general’s report released last month alleging decades of abuse by Catholic priests.
Democratic Attorney General Kathleen Kane accused previous bishops in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown of ignoring or hiding decades of sexual abuse by priests, but Kane said that nearly all of the allegations were too old to be prosecuted.
Nevada last year extended its statute of limitations on rape cases from four years to 20 after a woman who alleges that Cosby raped her in 1989 in Las Vegas pushed for the bill. And Oregon recently approved a law allowing prosecutors to file rape charges beyond the statute of limitations if there is new corroborating evidence or multiple victims come forward.
In Illinois, where former U.S. House Speaker Dennis Hastert admitted molesting students when he was a high school teacher and wrestling coach in the 1970s, lawmakers are considering eliminating the statute of limitations for people abused as children. Under current law, prosecutors may file charges up to 20 years after the victim turns 18.
Illinois state Sen. Scott Bennett, a former prosecutor, proposed the measure after Hastert was indicted for related financial crimes rather than for the actual sexual abuse.
“He admitted that he did things with children and you can’t do anything about it, but you can get him on money laundering charges. That seems wrong,” said Bennett, a Democrat.
Changes in public policy often follow cases like Hastert’s, according to Polly Poskin with the Illinois Coalition Against Sexual Assault. “Most law and public policy is really a response to an event,” she said. “Why it’s so critical is because when one person comes forward, if there are other survivors — and inevitably there are — it gives courage to other victims to come forward … you see a pattern.”
In the last several years, Hawaii and Minnesota have approved “window” laws that lift the statute of limitations for two and three years, respectively, to allow people to sue their alleged abusers in civil court.
The Pennsylvania bill also includes a “window” provision, because lawmakers can only eliminate the statute of limitations for future crimes, not ones that have already occurred.
“We’re going to put the liability back on the people who caused this. We need to be able to go back and sue the perpetrators and institutions who covered it up,” said Democratic state Rep. Mark Rozzi, who shepherded the bill through the House and says he was abused by a priest when he was 13.
Tough to Tell
Victims of rape and sexual abuse are often reluctant to report the crime. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, nine out of 10 child sexual abuse victims are abused by someone close to them, and may be hesitant to report them. Many initially feel it is their fault or they will not be believed. For others it may take years, or even decades, to come to terms with what happened and to tell others about it.
“It wasn’t until the last year and a half that I was able to use that word and call it what it really was — rape,” said Victoria Valentino, who says she was raped by Cosby in 1969 in California — a state where the current statute of limitations on rape is 10 years. Calls to Cosby’s attorney were not returned.
Barbara Blaine, president of the Illinois chapter of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, which has advocated for the bill pending in the Illinois Legislature, long blamed herself for the abuse she says she experienced as a child. She didn’t tell anyone about it until she was nearly 30 and a therapist asked her about her first kiss.
“Well, I was in seventh or eighth grade, and it was the priest at my church,” she said.
Blaine said she spent years working with the church to try to keep her alleged abuser away from children. But, she said, by the time it became clear that legal action was necessary, the statute of limitations on her case had run out.
Making a Case
But critics, including some prosecutors and defense attorneys, say efforts to eliminate the statutes are misguided.
Natasha Minsker of the American Civil Liberties Union of California is opposing a bill that would scrap the state’s 10-year statute of limitations for rape. Minsker points out that California already allows extra time to file charges if there is DNA evidence. She said the accused affected by the change would have a hard time mounting a defense.
“When you’re talking decades later trying to reconstruct what you were doing and finding witnesses to testify on your behalf it becomes nearly impossible,” Minsker said.
In Oklahoma, where a pending bill would allow prosecutors to file charges up to 18 years after the crime becomes known to a third party, prosecutors have expressed concerns.
Trent Baggett with the Oklahoma District Attorneys Council said crimes become harder to prosecute the more time passes. Evidence gets destroyed or lost, witnesses’ memories fade, and prosecutors may doubt their ability to persuade jurors “beyond a reasonable doubt.”
It’s understandable that victims want to have their day in court, Baggett said, but the likelihood of a conviction is low. “You hate for that person to get their hopes raised and then feel they’ve gotten victimized again by the state.”
Even some victims are worried about scrapping the statutes.
Sujatha Baliga, who said she was sexually abused as a child, now works in restorative justice, a process in which victims and offenders come together to talk about the incident and reconcile.
She said many victims may be hesitant to use the process if there’s a chance that something said during it might be reported to police. Many victims don’t report what happened to them because they don’t want their abuser, who may be a relative, to get in trouble, Baliga said.
“They need to hear it wasn’t their fault and that the other person is sorry,” she said. “Because the only option is punitive, I suffered in silence for a decade.”
But Susan Howley of the National Center for Victims of Crime said prosecutors should be free to determine whether to pursue each individual case, regardless of how much time has lapsed since the crime occurred.
“If in a given case the prosecutor believes the available evidence is strong enough to prove the charges beyond a reasonable doubt, there should be no arbitrary time limitation prohibiting the case from going forward,” Howley said.
Bennett, the Illinois legislator and former prosecutor, said when victims don’t report crimes right away it can make it harder to win cases, “but that’s true whether it’s been a year after it happened or 20 years after it happened. You’ve got to take more time to explain to jurors why they didn’t come forward.”
This story was produced by Stateline, an initiative of The Pew Charitable Trusts.