Thursday, December 22, 2011

Feminist legal scholar explains need for statutes of limitations in sex cases

Statutes of limitations in criminal cases are designed to protect the innocent. The longer an accuser waits to bring a charge from the date it allegedly occurred, the more difficult it is to fairly defend against it.  The horror stories of the repressed memories witch hunts are examples of what can occur. In rape cases, there is a national trend to lengthen or eliminate statutes of limitations entirely. This is a concern to the criminal defense bar, the ACLU, and many others. We write about it from time to time -- see e.g.:; and

Aya Gruber is a legal scholar whose feminist credentials can't be questioned. See here. Her views on these issues are complex and surprisingly nuanced. She is someone to be taken seriously even when you disagree with her. Read what she says about the reasons for statutes of limitations in sex cases.

Why Are There Statutes of Limitations in Child Rape Cases?
by Jessica Grose/Slate

On Tuesday, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that former Philadelphia Daily News sports columnist Bill Conlin had been accused of molesting four children in the 1970s. Because of the statute of limitations on sexual assault prosecutions in Pennsylvania, Conlin’s alleged victims cannot bring him to court. Kelley Blanchet, who is Conlin’s niece and one of his alleged victims, told the Inquirer that she went public with the accusations in part to draw attention to the inadequacies of these statute of limitations laws (she was also inspired to come forward by the Jerry Sandusky revelations at Penn State). Former Slate-ster Chad Matlin asked, “Is there a rationale for statue of limitations in sexual assault cases?”

Though child molestation is a monstrous crime, there are good reasons for a statute of limitations in sexual assault cases—mainly that the longer you take to prosecute any crime, the more stale the evidence gets and the less reliable it is. Aya Gruber, a professor at the University of Colorado Law School, says that when the charge is based on the word of the victim, timing can be especially important. “For example, if a person comes forward with a claim of sexual assault when he was a 7-year-old, 20 years after the fact, arguably the charge is suspect from the beginning,” Gruber points out. “The person’s memory has been subject to change and influence, essential witnesses might have forgotten the events or even be dead, it may be impossible to get physical evidence in the case, and the like.” Furthermore, Gruber says, a long-delayed charge lessens the retributive and deterrent value of a conviction.

Historically, only murders were exempt from statute of limitations laws, but there’s been a general trend in the U.S. toward increasing the statute of limitations on sexual assaults in almost every jurisdiction. Pennsylvania is a good example of the wider trend: Before 1991, child sexual assault victims had two years to report inappropriate touching and five years to report a greater abuse, like sodomy or rape. As the Inquirer explains, the statute of limitations law in child sexual assault cases has been extended three times since then. Now, child victims have until they turn 50 to report sexual assaults—but that’s only for victims who turned 18 after the law went into effect, in 2002, so that still leaves Conlin’s alleged victims without legal recourse.