Eliminating Statute of Limitations on Child Sex Crimes Problematic
By Dan Petrella Lee
April 29, 2016
After former U.S. House Speaker Dennis Hastert was sentenced Wednesday to 15 months in federal prison for violating banking laws in an attempt to cover up decades-old sexual abuse allegations, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan called on lawmakers to eliminate the statute of limitations on felony sex crimes against children.
But legal defense experts say doing away with restrictions on how long after an alleged crime someone can be charged could undermine the fairness of the legal process and put innocent people at risk of prosecution.
“It is very, very dangerous,” said William Schroeder, a criminal law professor at Southern Illinois University. “There are reasons for the statute of limitations.”
Chief among those reasons is that the memories of both alleged victims and alleged perpetrators become less reliable over time, Schroeder said.
Under current law, there is no statute of limitations on felony sex crimes against children when there’s physical evidence or when someone required by law to report abuse fails to do so. In other felony cases, someone can be charged up to 20 years after the alleged victim turns 18.
Authorities couldn’t charge Hastert, a 74-year-old Republican who was once second in line to the presidency, with sex crimes because the allegations against him dated back to his time as a high school teacher and wrestling coach in Yorkville, which ended in 1981. But in handing down his sentence, U.S. District Judge Thomas Durkin – the brother of Illinois House Minority Leader Jim Durkin, R-Western Springs – referred to Hastert as a “serial child molester.”
One of Hastert’s alleged victims was allowed to testify at the sentencing, as was the sister of another alleged victim who has since died.
Scott Cross, the 53-year-old brother of former Illinois House Republican Leader Tom Cross, told the court that Hastert sexually abused him in a school locker room.
Authorities say there were at least three other victims, including one whom Hastert agreed to pay $3.5 million to keep quiet. It was banking violations related to those payments that led to the former speaker’s downfall.
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While a written statement Madigan issued Wednesday afternoon didn’t mention Hastert by name, it was released within hours of the sentencing.
“When a prosecutor cannot indict an offender for these heinous acts because the statute of limitations has run, it raises serious moral, legal and ethical questions,” said Madigan, a Democrat. “We have long supported extending the time period for prosecutors to file sexual assault and abuse charges, and we urge the Legislature to eliminate the statute of limitations on all sex crimes involving children.”
Polly Poskin, executive director of the Illinois Coalition Against Sexual Assault, joined Madigan in the effort.
“If people understood the devastating and debilitating impact that sex crimes have on someone, then they would understand why it’s so hard to step forward, especially when the perpetrator is someone in a position of trust, like a teacher or coach,” Poskin said in the prepared statement. “These victims need justice in order to heal – even decades after the abuse.”
But Schroeder said doing away with the statute of limitation would be “profoundly misguided” and would create too many problems.
“You have to have some kind of rational balance between society’s interest in prosecuting malefactors and people’s interest in, one, not being convicted of crimes they didn’t commit, but in being able to move on,” he said.
The office of the state appellate defender doesn’t have an official position on Madigan’s proposal, said David Bergschneider, deputy state appellate defender. But the idea does raise concerns, he said.
“The purpose of the statute of limitations is to protect innocent people because the difficulty of presenting a defense,” Bergschneider said. “Most people could understand if they were charged with committing a crime on a certain day 30 years ago, it would probably be very difficult for them to even begin to figure out where they were or what they were doing on that particular day.”