The purported sexual assault victims of comedian Bill Cosby may or may not eventually win justice, but lawmakers around the nation are trying to make justice possible for other sexual assault victims. Some California legislators, for example, are working to abolish the state’s statute of limitations for sexual assault prosecutions. The effort is a response to the numerous allegations against Cosby, mostly incidents that happened more than a decade ago. In August, the California Assembly unanimously voted to abolish the current ten-year statute of limitations for felony sex crime charges and allow victims to bring charges at any time.
The bill will probably be approved by the California Senate, which has already approved an early draft of the legislation, and if so, it will likely be signed by Governor Jerry Brown. In fact, the legislation may be California law by the time you are reading this. Under the current statute of limitations, the only exception to the ten-year limit for rape and felony sex crime prosecutions is if new DNA evidence emerges after the ten-year period. The new legislation gives victims of sexual assault new opportunities to bring their assailants to justice.
More than fifty women have accused Bill Cosby of sexual assaults going back to the 1970s, but most of these women cannot now obtain justice because the statute of limitations for sex crimes in those jurisdictions has run out. In June, three of those women testified to the California Senate: actress Lili Bernard, who says she was raped by Bill Cosby in the 1990s; ex-Playboy model Victoria Valentino, who says that Cosby raped her in 1969; and a former assistant to Cosby’s agent, a woman identified only as “Kacey,” who said the comedian sexually assaulted her two decades ago.
WHAT DOES THE CONSTITUTION ALLOW?
Under Article 1, Sections 9 and 10 of the United States Constitution, criminal charges cannot be brought retroactively in the United States by either the federal or a state government, so none of the women currently accusing Bill Cosby can benefit from the proposed California legislation. If it becomes law, it will apply only to future victims of rape and sexual assault and to those for whom the current ten-year statute of limitations has not expired.
Across the nation, thirty-four of the fifty states have statutes of limitations ranging from three to thirty years for bringing rape and sexual assault charges. Statutes of limitations protect defendants from the nearly-impossible task of having to defend themselves against criminal charges after evidence has deteriorated and the memories of witnesses have faded. Old charges are not only difficult to defend against, but according to Robert Weisberg, a professor of law at Stanford University, they’re also difficult to prosecute effectively.
Speaking to the Daily Beast, Weinberg explained, “The prosecution still has to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the crime occurred, and it’s not easy to win cases that late.” Weisberg added that in sexual assault cases, lawmakers have been making an increasing number of exceptions to statutes of limitations because we now have a better grasp of how trauma can impact a victim’s memory. For example, prosecutors in child sexual assault cases have argued that plaintiffs developed psychological issues that prevented them from understanding or talking about the crime until years later.
HOW DOES A SOCIETY RECOGNIZE THAT RAPE IS A SERIOUS CRIME?
In most jurisdictions, Weinberg explains, there is no statute of limitations for first-degree murder, and the criminal justice system is not concerned with complicated psychological problems like repressed memory in murder cases. “To some extent,” Weisberg says, “the call to eliminate the statute of limitations on rape is a call for social recognition that rape is a very serious crime.”
Marci Hamilton is a professor at the University of Pennsylvania where she specializes in studies of child sexual abuse. She told the Daily Beast, “Statutes of limitations for rape and sexual assault are artificial time limits created for the sake of convenience, but only for the perpetrator’s convenience. There’s no record of an avalanche of false claims in states where there never has been a statute of limitations, so the arguments defending these statutes are very weak.”
Tamara Lave is a professor of law at the University of Miami School of Law. She says on a positive note that California’s proposed abolition of the statute of limitations for rape and sexual assault “certainly shows that we’re taking sexual assault more seriously,” but she adds that “it makes it hard for someone who is innocent to defend themselves. And for a country that believes in liberty, that’s a problem.”
HOW ARE OTHER STATES REACTING TO THE COSBY INCIDENTS?
In the state of Colorado, two of Bill Cosby’s accusers – Beth Ferrier, 57, of Denver, and Heidi Thomas, 56, of Castle Rock – lobbied relentlessly and successfully to extend that state’s statute of limitations in rape and sexual assault cases. Governor John Hickenlooper signed the bill in June. The new statute of limitations in rape and sexual assault cases extends the statute of limitations to twenty years in Colorado. Several other states are considering similar measures.
Neither Ferrier nor Thomas reported the incidents at the time, purportedly because they believed that incriminating Cosby would damage their careers. Advocates of extending statutes of limitations contend that a lengthier period is appropriate in rape and sexual assault cases, as victims may need years to process and deal with sexual assault before they are able to come forward.
In the state of California, a number of sex crimes are against the law. In southern California, anyone who is accused of a rape or a sexual assault must retain the services of an experienced Orange County criminal defense attorney who can safeguard your legal rights while defending you against the charge. Apart from the serious legal consequences of a conviction for a sex crime – fines, prison, and lifetime sexual offender status – a convicted sex offender may have difficulty finding employment or even finding housing.
Never try to act as your own attorney if you are charged with something as serious as a sex crime. Do not plead guilty or answer any questions from the police without having an Orange County criminal defense attorney present. Sometimes the accusation of a sex crime can be completely discredited, and in other cases the charge can be reduced, but winning against a sexual assault prosecution will always require the skills of an experienced defense lawyer. With a heightened public awareness of sexual assault and new laws on the books, it’s certain that there will be more arrests and sexual assault prosecutions in California in the years to come.