Statute of limitations in sexual assault: barrier to justice or necessary restriction

One in four women and one in six men will be sexually assaulted in their lifetime.

One in six women and one in thirty-three men will experience attempted or completed rape in their lifetime.

One in every seven victims of sexual assault is under the age of six.

#MeToo has helped women to come forward to seek justice. Still, for victims of sexual assault, statutes of limitations may prevent them from filing charges.

A statute of limitations is the amount of time someone can pursue legal action for a crime. In some states, laws regarding sexual assault crimes have been changed, either by doing away with the statute of limitations or modifying it enough to account for the unique circumstances these cases may present.

But, it remains highly controversial, with experts lining up on both sides of issue.

Should a victim be able to file a charge against someone regardless of how much time has passed? Or, should we simply modify the law to take into account the uniqueness of this crime?

We should do away with statute of limitations for sexual abuse charges.

reluctance to report

Victims are reluctant to report sexual harassment and sexual violence by acquaintances, especially when the abuser has the power to retaliate. And, in eight out of 10 cases of rape, the victim knew the person who sexually assaulted them.

In addition, sexual assault is the most under-reported crime with 63% of incidents not divulged to police.

In order to come forward, it may take counseling and support over a period of time.

backlog of rape kits

A rape kit holds the evidence of a sexual assault, and may include blood, urine, hair, semen and other sources of DNA that could provide evidence in a court case.

There is a “backlog” of unanalyzed rape kits, meaning there is evidence out there that is being unaddressed by our criminal justice system. Some kits should have been sent to crime labs, yet are accidentally overlooked. Some kits make it to crime labs but don’t get tested–at least for long periods, in which they are simply stored.

child victims

Children are the most reluctant victims to report crimes of sexual assault, with only about 12% eventually coming forward.

The biggest contributors to silence are the age of the victim (older children feel more responsibility and therefore shame, and they stay silent longer) and his or her relationship to the perpetrator. If the abuser comes from inside the family, the child is much more likely not to report the crime.

With time, and reflection, some children come forward. But, short statutes of limitations may cruelly deny justice to these victims while allowing abusers to remain unpunished.

what Bill Cosby and Harvey Weinstein showed us

After years of silence, dozens of women came forward to accuse Bill Cosby of sexual assault but their time had run out to find justice. Andrea Constand was the only Cosby victim who was able to bring a case against him. She filed a few weeks before the Pennsylvania statute of limitations expired her case.

From this case, Cosby was convicted of multiple charges of sexual assault, and now faces up to 30 years in prison after the jury found him guilty of drugging Constand in order to have sex with her.

Statutes of limitations have also kept victims of Harvey Weinstein from pursuing their cases.

We should modify the law but not do away with it.

state-level progress

At least 29 states have amended legal deadlines to take into account child sexual abuse, giving victims more time to pursue criminal cases as adults without allowing sex offenses to be prosecuted into perpetuity.

Advocates are working toward legal changes that could allow a case to be reopened:

  • if DNA evidence is presented
  • if audio, video or other electronic recordings, text messages, phone recordings or photographs provide incriminating evidence
  • if there was a confession
  • if police receive information regarding another victim of a similar crime by the same suspect

missing the point

“The biggest barrier to victims’ coming forward isn’t the statute of limitations, but what victims face when they do report,” says Sandra Park, senior attorney with the national A.C.L.U. Women’s Rights Project. Far more often, system bias stands in the way, Park said, when police officers and detectives dismiss survivor testimonies and lose or mishandle evidence. Rather than focusing on statutes of limitations, Park said policymakers instead should make sure law enforcement is trained to handle sexual assault cases appropriately.

alibi and other evidence

the quicker the trial, the more accurate

Receipts from bars visited or taxis taken, GPS data, texts, calls–all can establish time and location. Detectives can check with friends, stores, schools, look at surveillance tapes, and much more. All of this establishes credibility; doubt from the passage of years can create doubt in jurors.

deteriorated or lost evidence

Information gathered and stored through crime labs is more likely to be lost or damaged over time.

standards for conviction

The standard for convicting a person of a crime—beyond a reasonable doubt—is more difficult to meet the older the case. Jurors may see change in much-older assailants. They may see holes in prosecutorial evidence. And, the statistics do not bode well for victims regardless of the time they come forward, with 99% of perpetrators of sexual assault to remain un-convicted of the crime.

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