Lawmakers Seek to Abolish Statute of Limitations in Rape Cases

By Samantha Allen
Telegram & Gazette
July 17, 2015

The dismissal of charges alleging a man raped a woman in a Worcester alley in 1999 has prompted a state senator to propose the elimination of the time limit to prosecute rape cases altogether.

Sen. Jennifer L. Flanagan, D-Leominster, filed legislation this week to end the 15-year statute of limitations after learning Rudolph A. Williams, 43, with an address listed in Leominster, won’t be prosecuted in Worcester Superior Court for rape and two counts of assault and battery.

Two months ago Mr. Williams was arraigned for a case 16 years old, revived by discovery of a DNA match. The Worcester Police Department received a grant to review old evidence, according to the Worcester District Attorney’s office. When officers got a hit, they tracked Mr. Williams to Palm Beach, Florida, and extradited him back to Worcester County.

District Attorney Joseph D. Early Jr. said even though he knew the January 1999 case fell outside the 15-year limit, if prosecutors could prove the man had been living out of state for any length of time in the last decade-and-a-half, the case could be “tolled,” meaning the statute clock wouldn’t run during those times.

But Mr. Williams kept his Massachusetts address all these years, Mr. Early said, still registering as a Level 1 sex offender in a separate case and paying Massachusetts taxes. When officers found Mr. Williams in Florida, Mr. Early said the suspect claimed to have been on vacation. A judge ruled prosecutors failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt Mr. Williams had lived outside the state.

“I am not worried about winning and losing cases. I’m not worried about conviction rates,” Mr. Early said. “The right thing to do is the right thing to do. The facts were horrible, and we had to do everything we could for this victim to get a conviction.”

After the dismissal, Mr. Early vowed to advocate for the elimination of the statute of limitations on rape charges. He got in touch with Ms. Flanagan, who filed legislation.

“If you’re a victim of rape and you take years to block it out and then all of a sudden (that memory) comes back,” Ms. Flanagan said, “it’s disheartening to know the statute of limitations can prevent you from finally putting closure on that.”

A shocking call

On Jan. 17, 1999, a tall, black man followed a 22-year-old woman out of the former Mr. Magoo’s Bar on Canterbury Street, as she went to Honey Farms to buy a pack of cigarettes. Officials said surveillance video placed Mr. Williams inside the store, just before he allegedly followed the young woman out into the store parking lot. The victim said he grabbed her and pulled her under a fence where he pinned her down.

The sexual assault survivor, who spoke with the Telegram & Gazette anonymously, said she was stunned when she got a call from the Worcester police in December, just shy of 16 years after the attack. In 1999, she had reported the case to police that day and went to the hospital for a sexual assault testing kit.

“I almost passed out,” she said this month. “(The officer) said, ‘I don’t want to get your hopes up,’ because of the statute of limitations problem, ‘but we found him, and we’re going to get him and we’re going to try.’ And they did try.”

The survivor, 38, a Worcester native still living in New England, said she revisited the case mentally, disclosing the incident for the first time to her partner, too, all the while believing justice could finally be served. She worked with the district attorney’s office and testified before a grand jury.

When she learned in late June Mr. Williams’ charges would be dropped, she cried, she said, though she still felt a shred of hope.

Mr. Williams still faces charges in Springfield, including indecent assault on a person over 14, aggravated serious bodily injury or rape, assault to rape and assault and battery, according to the Springfield police. Mr. Early said that case has the potential for a life sentence.

The evidence from Worcester could also be brought before the state Sex Offender Registry Board to have Mr. Williams reclassified as a Level 3 sex offender, the highest level. That fact was of comfort to the survivor.

“I just have to believe everything happens for a reason,” she said. “It was like Pandora’s box being reopened. I was going through all these emotions I had a long time ago. But now … that (I know) he’s in jail, I have closure.”

Updating the law

This week, Ms. Flanagan filed legislation, co-sponsored by Sen. Michael O. Moore, D-Millbury, to place no time limit on rape charges, just like murder cases and the rape of children in most instances.

“Something could trigger (that memory) in 10 or 15 years,” she said. “That’s where my concern comes from. … It’s 2015. We tell women (and men) to come forward. … This is just one more tool victims have so that when they’re ready to come forward, they can do that.”

Ms. Flanagan said technology continues to develop in this arena, too. She said perhaps in a few more years, evidence will be processed far better than it is today that could lead to more DNA matches.

Martin W. Healy, chief legal counsel for the Massachusetts Bar Association, said the trend of modifying sexual crime laws is sweeping the country. He noted the multiple decades-old rape allegations against Bill Cosby in recent months highlights pressure for these laws to be reviewed.

“We can see, and rightfully so, that society is rethinking the way these crimes, usually perpetrated against women, have been handled by the courts,” he said. “There’s a very national trend toward trying to allow the victims of these very horrific crimes to come forward and get their day of justice in a court of law.”

Mr. Healy pointed to a recent change in Massachusetts law on the civil side which extends the statute of limitations for juvenile rape cases. He said, though, Ms. Flanagan's proposed bill could be controversial, and something defense lawyers will likely oppose.

“(They) will argue perhaps too much time has passed where victims’ memories or witnesses’ memories or a defendant’s memories have changed significantly,” he said. “Perhaps some of the evidence may have deteriorated to such a degree that its reliability may come into question (as well). … I think this will require a lot of hard study by the Legislature.”

Reach Samantha Allen at Follow her on Twitter @SAllen_89.








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