Bill Cosby: Why is there a time limit on bringing sexual assault cases to US courts?
9 September 2016
- From the section US & Canada
allege they have been sexually assaulted by the comedian Bill Cosby, but
only one woman will face him in criminal court. Campaigners say laws
which set deadlines on when these crimes can be reported deny survivors
It started when he was just eight. A man, well known to his family, began grooming him.
Fifty years later, Kevin Sweeney is finally able to talk about the sexual abuse to which he was subjected.
“It quickly escalated to inappropriate touching, and eventually rape,” explains Mr Sweeney.
continued until Mr Sweeney was 13 years old. His abuser threatened to
harm his siblings and parents if he told anyone, so he stayed silent.
Now a school teacher, married with children, Mr Sweeney lived with his secret for decades.
In his early forties, after learning his abuser had died, he worked up the courage to tell his wife.
“It took about 8 months of therapy before I could say the word rape,” explains Mr Sweeney.
then, it was too late to seek justice – even if his attacker had been
alive, he could not have pressed charges, thanks to the statute of
limitations on such crimes in his home state.
Statutes of limitation set deadlines on when someone can file a criminal complaint.
murder cases there is no time frame, but for many other crimes, the
clock starts ticking after an alleged offence occurs. When it comes to
allegations of rape and sexual assault, states have different laws. The
window of opportunity can vary from a few years, to a few decades. In
sixteen states there is no limit.
Campaigners say this law has
impeded many of those who are accusing Bill Cosby from seeking justice.
Proponents say it’s necessary to keep the justice system fair.
women have come forward claiming Mr Cosby sexually assaulted them –
allegations spanning from the 1960s to the late 2000s.
But only one of these women has brought charges against Mr Cosby.
most of these accusations, it was simply too late for a prosecutor to
even consider them,” Gloria Allred, the lawyer representing more than 30
of the women, recently wrote,
Mr Cosby is due to go on trial in
June next year, accused by Andrea Constand of drugging and abusing her
in Pennsylvania in January 2004. He denies the allegations and all the
Ms Constand first went to the police in 2005, but prosecutors initially said there wasn’t enough evidence to press charges.
year the case was reopened, after new evidence emerged. Ms Constand
filed her case a few days before the statute of limitations – which is
14 years in Pennsylvania – was about to expire.
But other women who accuse Mr Cosby of sexual assault say they feel cheated.
Lubin says she passed out after Mr Cosby gave her two alcoholic drinks
and petted her hair at a hotel in Nevada in 1989. She believes she was
drugged by the comedian.
She tried to file a police complaint at the start of
2015, after other women came forward with stories very similar to her
own. Because the four year statute of limitations in Nevada had passed,
it was too late.
Testifying before a judiciary committee in March
of that year, she said, “I now understand that the law prevents the
victim in my circumstances from seeking justice.”
In May 2015, a
new law was passed giving survivors up to 20 years to report an alleged
sexual crime. Ms Lubin, who was one of the leaders of the campaign for
change, said the new law would provide survivors of sexual assault “much
needed time” to come forward.
In June this year, Beth Ferrier
and Heidi Thomas, who both allege Mr Cosby assaulted them in the 1980s,
celebrated as politicians in Colorado doubled the statute of limitations
there from 10 to 20 years.
Mr Sweeney also successfully fought to change the statute of limitations in his current home state, Ohio.
June 2015, the state increased the time sexual assault survivors have
to file a complaint, from 20 to 25 years. He hopes the limitation will
be removed completely one day.
“Imagine that your wife or your
daughter or your sister or mother had had this experience, and that you
did everything you could as their parent or spouse to get them to a
point where they were strong enough to testify but then found out you
couldn’t because time was up.
“What would you say to them then?”
The fight to change statute of limitation laws
across the US has been met with resistance. The Catholic Church has
lobbied against proposals to change child sexual assault laws in several
Many legal experts argue these laws exist to protect defendants.
Patrice, a former lawyer who edits the legal news publication Above the
Law, believes there needs to be a cut-off point so a defendant isn’t at
the mercy of prosecution indefinitely.
Keeping a case within a set period avoids a scenario
where memories fade and it becomes one person’s word against another’s,
he argues. Mr Patrice is also concerned that in sexual assault cases
where DNA is crucial, evidence could get corrupted over time.
it can take decades for DNA evidence to come back in the first place. In
a number of states, including Ohio, rape kits lie untested for decades.
Amy Roberts had to wait nine years for her rape kit to come back.
Two decades ago, a man broke into her college apartment and raped her at knifepoint.
thought he was going to kill me,” she said. “After I left, I went to
the hospital and got a rape kit done, and I reported it to the police
and basically that’s where it stayed for a while.”
Ms Robert’s attacker still hasn’t been caught. Like Mr Sweeney, she also testified before the state Senate in Ohio.
As part of the new changes introduced, victims now have an additional five years to file a case after DNA is found.
“Rape is such a traumatic crime. It’s almost 20 years and I still feel like it’s affected my core.
“The idea that there’s an arbitrary timeline that a person can no longer be held accountable makes no sense.”
The publicity the Cosby case has thrown onto these issues could bring about even more change.
California, a state where some of Mr Cosby’s accusers live, a bill
called SB 813 was recently passed to end the statute of limitations for
rape, child sex abuse, and other sex crimes.
Governor Jerry Brown has until the end of September to sign the bill into law.
The author of the bill, State Senator Connie Leyva, says the high burden of proof still stands in these cases.
“SB 813 simply ensures that the door does not slam in the face of victims,” she says.
And for Mr Sweeney, it’s important that door always stays open.
“One of the dangers of statutes of limitations is that it’s assuming a
victim’s healing process is linear and logical. But it’s not.
“It’s more like a wave pattern. I feel strong today, but tomorrow I don
from Blogger http://ift.tt/2c4qmhH