Column: Statutes of limitations warrant reexamination in the #MeToo era
Charges of sexual misconduct made public through the #MeToo movement. The Bill Cosby rape case. The prosecution of an Olympics doctor for abusing underage athletes. More shocking revelations about the alleged cover-up of child molestation by Catholic priests.
These and other recent stories share more than sordid and gut-wrenching details. They are also marked by another striking commonality in that they involve conduct that is years, sometimes many decades, in the past.
As more information comes to light, and as we as a nation continue to grapple with an issue that has too often and too easily been kept in the shadows, we are faced with some thorny questions about how to deal with alleged sexual abuse that occurred long ago.
One area of focus has been on statutes of limitations.
These laws, which set time limits for the charging of crimes, have been part of the U.S. legal system since the nation’s founding. They seek to balance public safety and victims’ rights against the rights of the accused, the latter of which might be compromised over time as evidence is lost and memories fade.
Murder is the only crime that has no time limit on charges being filed. Sexual assault, considered the next most serious crime, has always been subject to limits, which vary from state to state.
Due to the recent high-profile allegations and growing public awareness of sexual abuse, however, there continues to be much rethinking regarding such statutes and whether we tilt too far toward protecting those accused of sexual crimes over the rights of their alleged victims.
Victims’ groups have offered passionate and heart-wrenching testimony in favor of loosening time restrictions on charges filed for sexual crimes. They have argued, quite rightly, against a system that often appears stacked against them; one in which victims’ statements are disbelieved out of hand, evidence is poorly handled and powerful institutions seek to silence or discredit them.
It is clear that we have failed to protect the vulnerable and failed them again when they have sought justice.
Attempts are being made to strike a better balance with statutes of limitations.
The majority of states in recent years have loosened their prosecution deadlines on child sexual abuse, a shift that many attribute to the explosive 2002 Boston Globe articles detailing allegations of systemic abuse and coverup in the Catholic Church. Fifteen states now have no time limits on prosecuting the sexual assault of a minor.
California is among those states that have made other changes as well.
Until two years ago, the state’s statute of limitations for rape and sex crimes was only 10 years. Then in September 2016 the Cosby case prompted state lawmakers to amend the law, eliminating the time limit.
But such no-limit laws are not applicable in all cases. The Supreme Court has ruled that it’s unconstitutional to retroactively apply the new statutes to cases that already expired under the old laws. Retroactive application is allowed in civil cases, but many states have age limits for victims to file suits.
Because of the retroactivity ruling, Harvey Weinstein, for instance, is shielded from prosecution over many of the allegations against him. The Golden State Killer will be tried on multiple murder counts, but the rape-related crimes of which he is accused have instead resulted in charges of kidnapping to commit robbery — even though authorities believe he committed more than 50 rapes.
There is a significant caveat. In California, exceptions to the retroactive rule are allowed if new DNA evidence emerges.
Some other states have looked at other carve-outs.
Oregon, for example, allows for exceptions if recordings, texts, phone calls or photos provide incriminating evidence; if the victim told or wrote to someone about the alleged assault soon afterward; if the suspect confesses; or if police receive a report of a similar crime by the same suspect.
As the legal landscape continues to evolve, however, it’s essential that we do not merely tweak statutes of limitations and leave it there. This issue is bigger than one category of law. We still face a reckoning when it comes to the larger question of how we as a society respond to allegations of sex crimes.
We must put the days of blaming and shaming victims, of inadequate law enforcement investigations, prosecutorial reluctance and systemic bias behind us. No more grilling victims about what they were wearing or leaving untested rape kits to gather dust until they are eventually thrown out.
Allegations often take years to surface in part because victims fear they won’t be believed, or that they’ll suffer more due to indifference, or because powerful interests are aligned against them.
Yes, prosecuting sex crimes is exceedingly difficult, often amounting to one person’s testimony over another’s, accompanied by a minefield of other complicating factors.
But it’s crucial that we continue moving toward a more just world in which victims no longer cower in fear, not only because of the trauma they’ve endured at the hands of an abuser but also because of a system that doesn’t protect or fight for them when they are most in need of help.
Patrice Apodaca is a former Newport-Mesa public school parent and former Los Angeles Times staff writer. She lives in Newport Beach.
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