A Difference of Words

By Adam Jadhav
Post-Dispatch [St. Louis MO]
July 25, 2004

As the nation awoke to headlines two years ago of sex abuse by priests, many prosecutors scrambled to go after the sometimes decades-old crimes.

The public learned of sex acts performed in cloisters, rectories and schools. Articles pointed to cover-up and coercion.

In some cases, the crimes happened so long ago that criminal charges were out of the question. Statutes of limitations - time limits for prosecution - were a roadblock to many attorneys wanting jail-time for abusive priests.

But some attorneys - among them St. Louis Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce - began to look for ways to file charges. Earlier this month, a three-judge panel of the Missouri Court of Appeals Eastern District ruled that no statute of limitations existed to bar Joyce's prosecution of a priest accused of child sex abuse in the late 1970s.

Though Joyce's office and the defense for accused priest Thomas Graham argued fine points of law - the meaning of the words "or" and "during" - lawyers and legal scholars have mixed opinions about the ruling, which says no statute of limitations exists for sodomy cases before 1979.

For one, they debate whether this will open the door to a wave of charges in old Missouri cases. They also can't agree on whether having no limit is fair. And they differ on whether the ruling would be upheld on appeal.

The only thing they can agree on: This issue is not going away.

"It's something that every state is dealing with," said Washington University law professor Peter Joy.

And though the panel ruling affects only Missouri courts, Illinois also has grappled with this issue. In 2003, the Legislature passed a law allowing child sex abuse cases to be prosecuted until the victim turns 28.

Additionally, if the offender in a child abuse case has a "professional relationship" with the victim, Illinois law allows charges to be brought within one year of discovery of the crime.

In 2002, Joyce charged Graham under a 1969 law that says anyone convicted of "the detestable and abominable crime against nature" can be given two years to life in prison. Because the code does not specify a time limit on prosecution, Joyce argued that the statute of limitations must be determined by the sentencing options.

Until crime code changes in 1979, Missouri law explicitly gave no statute of limitations for crimes punishable by "death or by imprisonment in the penitentiary during life." Most at issue in the code are the words "during" and "or."

The panel's July 6 opinion found that "during life" meant a life sentence. And "or" meant the crime did not have to have both the death penalty and life imprisonment as a sentencing option.

Thus, sodomy, for which an offender could receive two years to life in prison, has the same statute of limitations as does murder, which allows for both a life sentence or the death penalty.

"The ruling in this case is this is what the law is," said Ed Postawko, the prosecuting St. Louis attorney in the case. "(Justices) are not making any political statement or political opinion."

But Graham's defense argued that "or" meant only crimes that have punishments of both the death penalty and life imprisonment should have no limit on prosecution.

"Suspending the statute of limitations - meaning there would be none - only applies for offenses that are punishable by either death or, in the alternative, life imprisonment," said Art Margulis, an attorney representing Graham who planned to ask the full court to rehear the case.


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