Nightmare for Child Abuse Victims Begins Anew

By Laura A. Ahearn
Los Angeles Times [California]
Downloaded July 26, 2003

When the cell door in Shasta County slammed shut in July 2001 on her father, Donna was able to sleep well for the first time in 25 years. Knowing that the man who molested her and her two sisters was behind bars, unable to prey on others, gave her a sense of relief unlike anything she'd known since he started abusing them in the late 1970s.

That relief was shattered when the U.S. Supreme Court decided to give convicted and confessed child molesters a get-out-of-jail-free card.

In the month since the Supreme Court struck down a California law retroactively extending the period for prosecuting those accused of sex crimes against children, at least 24 convicted child molesters have been set free. They include a Tulare County minister convicted of molesting his two daughters in the 1970s and an Antelope Valley karate instructor who pleaded no contest last year to 14 counts of lewd conduct involving two children.

In Los Angeles County alone, 200 are expected to be set free; statewide, that number could total up to 800 leaving their victims again feeling violated, only this time by the U.S. Supreme Court. The decision left most victims feeling shocked and outraged.

One victim likened the process of seeking justice to trying to face her darkest fear for the first time and also to a dream come true: to finally face her abuser and let him know how much he hurt her and her sister. But thanks to the Supreme Court decision, she and her sister are facing their worst nightmare because the perpetrator may soon be released after serving just two years of the 10-year sentence he received for sex crimes committed against them.

In the ruling, Justice Stephen Breyer justified his decision, saying that "the accused lacked notice that he might be prosecuted" and therefore "he was unaware of any need to preserve evidence of innocence."

In so many words, the court absurdly suggests that child molesters might mark their calendars to note the statute of limitations deadline, save evidence that would somehow show that they did not commit the sex offense, and then, after the deadline passes, throw away that evidence.

In California, until 1994, sex crimes could not be prosecuted after either three or six years from the date of the crime, depending upon the specific offense. Lawmakers took a trailblazing step to retroactively extend the statute of limitations to revive old cases because they recognized that molested children are often too ashamed, fearful and traumatized to report crimes within a brief period.

Each state legislature enacts its own statutes of limitations reflecting social values, public interest and legislative judgments that weigh the burden versus the benefit of prosecuting old crimes. Recognizing that there is a benefit, a number of states have no limitation period for prosecuting felonies or other broadly defined classes of serious crimes, such as sexual assault. Other states have amended or eliminated their statutes of limitations in light of the development of DNA technology and its ability to make identifications after long lapses of time.

There is no evidence to suggest that states without a statute of limitations for sexual assault cases are experiencing difficulty in prosecuting cases or that they are treating defendants unfairly.

The national implications of this decision are broad and far-reaching.

After the priest-abuse scandal, many state legislators proposed changes to their statutes of limitations with hopes of retroactively prosecuting sexually abusive clergy. President Bush's proposed $1-billion DNA initiative, which promises to eliminate the backlog of thousands of unanalyzed crime scene DNA samples, is going to be affected by this decision as well; prosecution of many of the DNA-solved cases may be blocked. The high court's decision may also hamper the Justice Department's prosecution of terrorists under the USA Patriot Act, which eliminated the statute of limitations for terrorist crimes and applied that retroactively to older cases.

Murder and treason have no statute of limitations, and no one considers that unfair. It makes plenty of sense not to burden prosecutors with retroactive prosecution of minor crimes, but it is unjust not to retroactively prosecute child molesters and rapists in every state.

The "right" of convicted and confessed child molesters to escape justice forever because they escaped justice for a while is not greater than the right to justice for victims of childhood sexual abuse.


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