Sometimes the most simple-sounding questions spark the most profound discussion.
What’s our purpose on earth?
Why is the sky blue?
Why do we have a statute of limitations on sex crimes?
I mean, really, why give the criminal any break at all? By placing a limit on how far back the prosecutor can go to punish a sexual predator, aren’t we telling countless victims that the justice system doesn’t apply to them?
Experts in the medical and law enforcement fields will tell you the career sex offender has probably committed dozens of attacks over a long period of time before they’re ever caught. An FBI profiler once told me the Bureau stopped a serial molester who was in his 90s. Imagine how many victims he’d left in his wake.
Let’s say a career sex offender – maybe a priest, a teacher or a family member – routinely molests children and tricks them into staying silent for 10 years. (Statutes of limitations vary from state to state.) When the offender is finally brought to trial, the prosecutor is often barred from telling the jury about his past pattern of bad behavior, not even if a dozen others come forward to claim the defendant did the same thing to them. Too bad, the law says, it doesn’t matter anymore.
That’s a horrible thing to tell victims, that what happened to them doesn’t matter, that they can't get justice.
I know a lot of people who work in the justice system, so I called them to pose the question, “Why is there a statute of limitations on sex crimes?”
When I contacted Boston attorney Wendy Murphy, known nationally as an adamant victim’s advocate, she offered a much more sinister assessment of the status quo.
“The way these silly rules work should make any decent person cringe, because limitation periods mean a perp who raped 25 children can, as soon as the clock runs out, walk into the middle of main street and brag about his crimes – and there’s nothing anyone can do about it.”
Many others I contacted didn’t want their names used. Most seemed puzzled when I asked if we could simply do away with the statute of limitations for sex crimes.
A federal prosecutor in New Mexico told me, “that’s what the state legislature wants … (they) determine what S.O.L. will apply to every crime.”
A retired district attorney from California said, “It doesn’t have to be that way … a state legislature could pass a law and change it. Maybe it is time to change some laws.”
I also asked a sex crimes prosecutor, who answered in an exasperated tone of voice, “Why is there a statute of limitation on anything! I guess so the cases don’t linger forever…” And he admitted how tough it is to prove a crime happened years earlier. Details get fuzzy, witnesses move away, evidence can get lost, and defendants have the “right to a speedy trial.”
I came away thinking the real answer as to why we allow this is because that’s the way it has always been done …
That’s not to say that some adjustments haven’t occurred. Some states now allow childhood victims from 30 years to come forward. Some waive the time limitation and start the clock anew if psychiatric treatment has helped a victim recover their memory of abuse, or if DNA evidence from a current attack matches the DNA from a dormant case. Long ago, law enforcement started collecting DNA samples from rape victims, and now forensic matches in current cases are helping past victims find resolution. Finally, they are able to come face to face with the shadowy criminal who stole their dignity.