Why Are There Statutes of Limitations in Child Rape Cases?

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Dec. 21 2011 11:56 AM

Why Are There Statutes of Limitations in Child Rape Cases?

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Former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky (center) is accused of molesting boys he met through his charitable organization

Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images

On Tuesday, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that former Philadelphia Daily News sports columnist Bill Conlin had been accused of molesting four children in the 1970s. Because of the statute of limitations on sexual assault prosecutions in New Jersey, Conlin’s alleged victims cannot bring him to court. Kelley Blanchet, who is Conlin’s niece and one of his alleged victims, told the Inquirer that she went public with the accusations in part to draw attention to the inadequacies of these statute of limitations laws (she was also inspired to come forward by the Jerry Sandusky revelations at Penn State). Former Slate-ster Chad Matlin asked, “Is there a rationale for statute of limitations in sexual assault cases?”

Though child molestation is a monstrous crime, there are good reasons for a statute of limitations in sexual assault cases—mainly that the longer you take to prosecute any crime, the more stale the evidence gets and the less reliable it is. Aya Gruber, a professor at the University of Colorado Law School, says that when the charge is based on the word of the victim, timing can be especially important. “For example, if a person comes forward with a claim of sexual assault when he was a 7-year-old, 20 years after the fact, arguably the charge is suspect from the beginning,” Gruber points out. “The person’s memory has been subject to change and influence, essential witnesses might have forgotten the events or even be dead, it may be impossible to get physical evidence in the case, and the like.” Furthermore, Gruber says, a long-delayed charge lessens the retributive and deterrent value of a conviction.

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Historically, only murders were exempt from statute of limitations laws, but there’s been a general trend in the U.S. toward increasing the statute of limitations on sexual assaults in almost every jurisdiction. Pennsylvania is a good example of the wider trend: Before 1991, child sexual assault victims had two years to report inappropriate touching and five years to report a greater abuse, like sodomy or rape. As the Inquirer explains, the statute of limitations law in child sexual assault cases has been extended three times since then. Now, child victims have until they turn 50 to report sexual assaults—but that’s only for victims who turned 18 after the law went into effect, in 2002. In New Jersey, where the crimes took place, the state enacted a law in 1996 that eliminates statutes of limitation on child sexual assault, but that does not apply retroactively to victims of crimes committed in the 70s, so that still leaves Conlin’s alleged victims without legal recourse.

Correction, Jan. 17, 2012: Conlin’s alleged crimes took place in New Jersey, not Pennsylvania. The post has been updated to reflect this.

Jessica Grose is a frequent Slate contributor and the author of the novel Sad Desk Salad. Follow her on Twitter.

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