Emboldened by stirring testimony from rape survivors, legislators in California on Tuesday gave their first round of approval for a bill that would allow victims of rape and sexual assault to pursue justice outside of a narrow time frame.
Senator Connie Leyva proposed the bill, titled SB 813, in order to eliminate the ten-year statute of limitations within which victims must report their rape in the state. Abolishing the statute has become a common goal of several of the women Bill Cosby allegedly raped, who say it will help ensure that future generations aren't similarly disenfranchised by the criminal justice system.
"I wanted them to know that the system failed us," Linda Kirkpatrick, an alleged Cosby survivor who testified on Tuesday, told Broadly. She was surprised to find that some of the lawmakers weren't even aware that the statute existed. "I felt bad for them. I was surprised how little information they had about this issue."
Twelve bills have been proposed to overturn the statute in years past, according to the National Organization for Women's Jerilyn Stapleton, but this was the first time such a bill has ever made it out of its first committee.
Despite the obviously personal nature of the bill, supporters were initially told they wouldn't be able to give testimonies due to time restraints. "We do have committee rules," Loni Hancock, the chairperson for the Committee on Public Safety, said as the third person to take the stand was telling the story of her rape. That's when Jeff Stone, a Republican from Riverside county, stepped in, giving an impassioned speech about the government's obligation to victims.
"We have rules that I know we're supposed to follow. But these are women who have been scarred for years and have been waiting for this opportunity to come forward. I think it's therapeutic, I think it's helpful, and I want to hear their stories," Stone said.
In that moment, the tide turned in support of the bill, according to Caroline Heldman, a law professor at Occidental College and organizer for End Rape Statute of Limitations. After the testimonies from the survivors, "there was not a dry eye in the house," she said.
The opposition, which seemed convoluted at times, argued that overturning the statute could hurt communities of color that don't have good relationships with police and don't want to pursue justice in court. "Eliminating the statute of limitations could take the choice away from the survivors who don't want to prosecute," said Sujatha Baliga, who works in Oakland for the Restorative Justice Project.
Others argued that the bill could lead to false convictions. "When decades pass between prosecution and a criminal offense, memories fade, witnesses die, evidence is lost," said Natasha Minsker, director of the California chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. She added, "It becomes impossible for a person accused of a crime to defend himself or herself."
SB 813 could face additional scrutiny as it makes its way through the appropriation committee and is put to a final vote in the Senate. John Heilman, a law professor at Southwestern Law School, told Broadly he thought that increased awareness of rape on college campuses, as well as the high-profile cases against Bill Cosby, could lead the bill to eventually pass. But, he said, lawmakers would have to balance the civil liberties of those accused of crimes with the rights of victims to pursue justice. "How can we ensure justice for victims while not compromising our desire to protect people from wrongful conviction?" he asked. "That's the central question."
In a press conference after the meeting, flanked by attorney Gloria Allred, San Bernardino District Attorney Mike Ramos told the crowd how hopeful he was that he could soon pursue the kinds of cases he'd previously been forced to pass over. "For me, as a prosecutor, it really fills my heart that I will never have to look at a victim and say to them, 'I'm sorry, we can't file your case.'"
Another Cosby survivor, who wished to be identified as "Kacey," said she hoped the bill would right the wrongs that victims carry with them decades after a rape.
"Neither of my assailants have spent one second in jail, but we the victims are forced into a life sentence," she said. "It has irrevocably changed the trajectory of my life. I understand those who may take ten years and a day to muster the courage to report their rape. They deserve to be afforded the same opportunity to seek justice."