Friday, March 11, 2011

Oregon bill would eliminate statute of limitations for sex crimes against minors: a dangerous move for inncoent men and boys

Another bill is introduced that would eliminate the statute of limitations for sex crimes. This one, involving sex  crimes against minors, was introduced in Oregon. One of the bill's supporters, Rep. Dave Hunt, D-Gladstone, says bill will cover a short list of serious abuses. He says it's only fair for victims in these cases to get a lifetime to come forward, since the effects of childhood sexual and physical abuse are lifelong.

Before discussing these issues, let's make a point that we shouldn't need to say: the thought that a man who molested a child might be permitted to go unpunished is thoroughly repulsive.  The natural inclination would be to wish much harm on such a man.

But even worse is the thought that an innocent man -- perhaps your father, uncle, brother, son, or even you -- might be wrongly imprisoned for a sex crime he didn't commit that supposedly occurred 30 or 40 or more years ago. That is even more repulsive.

Before discussing Oregon's bill, let us briefly review the current status of sex crime statutes of limitations.


In recent years, in state after state, legislatures "have adopted varying extensions to their criminal statutes of limitations for cases of sexual assault." Some states have eliminated time limitation for bringing rape charges of varying kinds altogether.  Depending on the state, there are special rules for extending the rape statute of limitations for claims involving minors, for claims where the identity of the perpetrator is established by DNA, for claims involving authority figures, and on and on it goes.

But open-ended extensions or eliminations of statutes of limitations for purported cases of rape and sexual assault can pose grave problems for innocent persons wrongly accused of those crimes. With an open-ended statute of limitations, there is nothing to stop a woman from coming forward and accusing a man of an alleged rape that occurred decades earlier.

Arresting a man for something he allegedly did on a certain Tuesday in July of 1981 places him at a severe, and possibly insurmountable, evidentiary disadvantage. The innocent man likely has no recollection whatsoever of where he was on the day in question. He likely long ago discarded any tangible proof that could show either that could establish an alibi for the particular night at issue. He likely discarded any calendars he used as well as any invoices, receipts, or credit card statements to show he was out of town or dining or shopping elsewhere at the time. Any witnesses who might have established either an alibi likely either have died, disappeared, or wouldn't have any better recollection than the accused.

There is, in short,virtually no possibility that the man would be able to say anything more than "I know I didn't do it, but I don't remember anything about the night in question." If brought to trial, he would be like the warrior of old entering battle stripped of his shield and sword.

While we can hope that no prosecutor in his or her right mind would charge a man so many years after the fact, we know that prosecutors can't always be counted on to do the right thing. That fact is as irrefutable as the spelling of the word "Nifong." Issues such as this simply should not be left to their discretion.

If the goal is simply to convict as many rapists as possible without concern that some falsely accused men might be swept up in the dragnet, these efforts to extend or eliminate the statute of limitations for rape would be valid. But if we cherish Blackstone's Formulation that it is "better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer," these efforts need to be viewed with a jaundiced eye. What is needed when considering these issues is a serious dialogue that includes consideration of the interests of the wrongly accused, not a witch hunt to jack up rape conviction rates. For far too many people, the wrongly accused are unfortunate but necessary collateral damage in the "more important" war on sex crimes. But removing false accusations from the public discourse about rape, and blinking at the victimization of the falsely accused, is unspeakably vile and uncivilized.


For the current situation in Oregon, we refer readers to the excellent, even-handed article by Susan Nielsen in The Oregonian found here. Here's an excerpt:

. . . the appeal of erasing the time limits for prosecuting child abuse is obvious. It seems profoundly unfair that any uncle, any priest, any stepdad, any former governor, could slip beyond the law's grasp. And as one victim explained, the time limit seems to imply that a victim should be "over it" by then.

Yet criminal justice isn't just about nabbing known offenders. It's also about ensuring fair trials for all accused people, including those facing false or inflated charges. The purpose of a statute of limitations is to prosecute a case before memories fade, evidence is lost, or witnesses die or move away. This is especially important in Oregon, which doesn't require unanimous juries for criminal convictions.

"It is a due process issue," says legislative director Andrea Meyer of the American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon. "It is the reason we have a statute of limitations, which is to provide the necessary safeguards -- not to protect the guilty, but to protect the innocent."

In recent years, Oregon has extended the time limits for prosecuting sex crimes. The time limit for prosecuting rape is typically six years, and considerably longer for crimes involving children: Those crimes can be prosecuted until the victim turns 30, or within 12 years of an official report. Also, in 2009, Oregon removed the time limit for prosecuting certain sex crimes if the suspect is connected to the crime via DNA. A first-degree rape with DNA evidence can be prosecuted forever, much like a murder.

These time limits seem fair. Keeping the prosecutor's window open for extra years for child sex abuse is important, since a central cruelty of the crime is manipulating a young victim into silence. Closing the window eventually is appropriate, too, especially for cases that rely on individual testimony more than hard evidence.

If Oregon decided to keep the window open forever, it would face some tradeoffs. On the plus side, we might put a few more old creeps in prison. On the minus side, we might discover the typical aging creep becoming less likely to admit wrongdoing in civil suits (or to make amends with family members) when they have the threat of prison time hanging over their heads. Those uncles and priests and stepdads would be stonewalling, denying and character-assassinating like crazy, rather than sometimes acknowledging the harm done.

As for Goldschmidt, he eventually admitted serious wrongdoing for sexually abusing a teenager during the 1970s while serving as Portland mayor. It's not at all clear he would have admitted as much if prison had been an option. More denial would have hurt the victim further and kept the public in the dark, and where's the justice in that?

Oregon should keep most of its focus on the front end -- raising public awareness about child sex abuse, investigating allegations thoroughly, prosecuting cases effectively and helping young survivors recover. If lawmakers can prove that erasing the time limits for abuse would improve the criminal justice system, they could proceed. But they should prove it beyond a reasonable doubt.