More than 50 women have now accused Bill Cosby of sexual assault and, in some cases, rape. In the lurid tales they've recounted in recent years, many of the women have said they were plied by the comedian with knockout pills, only to wake up hours later, naked and violated.
Yet Cosby will never be tried in many of these cases because of the statute of limitations in the states where the crimes are said to have occurred. In California, for example, prosecutors have just 10 years to file charges in cases of rape and other sex assaults — while most of the crimes Cosby is accused of committing in California occurred in the 1960s and 1970s.
For rape and sexual assault victims, such apparently arbitrary time limits must seem extraordinarily unfair and frustrating; some of the nation's most serious criminals can permanently evade justice if they can just stay out of the law's way for a decade or so. In the wake of the Cosby allegations, advocates for rape victims have called on California to join the 16 other states that have no limit on how much time may pass between the commission of a rape or sexual assault and the filing of charges. State Sen. Connie Leyva (D-Chino) is already working on legislation to do just that, and she intends to introduce it when the Legislature returns to Sacramento in January.
But is that the right thing to do? We appreciate Leyva's concern for women who have been victimized. For too many years, the justice system was rigged against rape victims — and in many ways it still is. What's more, most Americans are aware of the outrageous stigma that has long plagued women who have been raped, a stigma so strong that many victims have opted not to report the crime. That's the reason many of the women now accusing Cosby give for not coming forward until now.
But Leyva and other lawmakers should be exceedingly careful. Changing criminal laws is no simple thing. Move the scales in one direction, and there's an equal disruption on the other side. Rewriting the statutes of limitations should be carefully researched — and should be based on more than the headlines in just one high-level celebrity case. (Incidentally, the women who say they were sexually assaulted by Cosby more than 10 years ago in California would not be helped by Leyva's bill because the rule-change would not be retroactive.)
Statutes of limitations exist for sound reasons, none of which are intended to hurt victims of crimes. In fact, statutes of limitations can in some cases help victims find justice because they give prosecutors and police a hard deadline to investigate and file charges. The more time that elapses between a crime and the investigation, the greater likelihood that evidence will be missed, lost or destroyed. Rape is a hideous crime that deserves to be punished, but the reality is that as the years pass, evidence becomes more stale and less credible.
And it should be noted that California already allows extensions in cases in which DNA evidence gathered at the time of the crime later identifies a perpetrator.
Statutes of limitations provide a deadline for victims too. Children notwithstanding (the clock for sex crimes committed against minors doesn't kick in until they are adults), victims have a duty to other potential victims to report a crime expeditiously. Imagine how many women might have avoided Cosby if he had faced accusations of rape in the 1970s.
And yes, time limits also help ensure that the accused have a fair chance to defend themselves. Over time, witnesses die or disappear, memories fade, evidence degrades.
There are crimes that have no statute of limitations. In California, murder, embezzlement of public money and certain cases involving minors have no time limit. Does sexual assault or rape belong in that category? If so, why not other felonies? Why not all felonies? Should the time limit be lengthened rather than eliminated? Or left as it is?
These are questions that ought to be addressed. This year, advocates for rape victims (including some of Cosby's accusers) persuaded Nevada lawmakers to extend their state's four-year statute of limitations to 20 years. Originally, the Nevada bill proposed lifting the limit altogether, but it was later amended.
If there's a good reason to change the statute of limitations in California, too, then lawmakers ought to have a discussion about it, based on data and facts — not just headlines.