End Arbitrary Limit on Sexual Assault Charges
April 29, 2016
Less than a decade ago, Dennis Hastert stood second in line to the presidency. On Wednesday, the former House speaker stood before a federal judge who called him a “serial child molester.”
It was an appropriate description of the 74-year-old Hastert, who has acknowledged sexually abusing four teenage boys while working as a high school wrestling coach in Illinois 30 years ago. “I want to apologize to the boys I mistreated,” he said. “They looked (up) at me and I took advantage of them.”
Yes, he did. But the abuse was not the primary reason for his conviction nor for the sentence he received of 15 months in federal prison. His conviction was for bank fraud related to the secretive withdrawal of hush funds to cover up his past actions. It’s equivalent to sending Al Capone to prison on tax evasion charges. It results in jail time but not justice.
Hastert would have faced much more serious charges and a longer prison sentence if not for one thing — the statute of limitations for criminal sexual misconduct in the state of Illinois. It expired long ago.
Such limitations also are at the heart of the cases against actor and comedian Bill Cosby, who has been accused of sexual misconduct and rape by more than 50 women. Many of the accusations date back decades, meaning the statutes of limitations have expired.
And so far he has avoided prosecution. But that may change now that a Pennsylvania court has cleared the way for Cosby to stand trial on charges of attacking former Temple University employee Andrea Constand, who says she was sexually assaulted at Cosby’s Elkins Park, Pa. mansion in January 2004. The statue of limitations for such crimes in Pennsylvania is 12 years.
In California, barring the discovery of new DNA evidence, the statute of limitations for felony sexual offense charges is 10 years. But the California Legislature is working on a possible change. Senate Bill 813, authored by state Sen. Connie Leyva, D-Chino, would abolish all legal deadlines for rape, sodomy, lewd or lascivious acts, continuous sexual abuse of a child, oral copulation and sexual penetration.
The key argument against the bill is that memory fades with time, and witness testimony becomes less reliable. But that’s true if the case is five years old or 15.
Yes, getting a conviction on an old case would be more difficult, and it should be. But let it be decided on the evidence, not on an arbitrary time limitation that varies from state to state.
As it is, the state has no statute of limitation for filing charges in cases of murder and embezzlement of public money. Aren’t the concerns about fading memories and fuzzy witness testimony just as relevant?
What’s known is that, for various reasons, years may pass before victims of sexual abuse are ready to go public about what happened to them. Sometimes they’re threatened or bribed into not taking legal action. It’s an example of how such limitations can protect rapists and abusers — and continue to victimize those they attacked.
Lawmakers should support SB 813.