Rachael Denhollander couldn’t sleep. With her 25th birthday fast approaching, she had just days left before she ran out of time to file a police report against then-celebrated USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar.
In other words, Denhollander had to decide whether to finally, publicly accuse of Nassar sexually abusing her when she was a 15-year-old gymnast.
“I woke up the morning I turned 25, and instead of feeling joy at a milestone, I only felt hopelessness and grief because I thought my chance to stop this man was over,” Denhollander told a Michigan courtroom, years later, after Nassar was convicted for decades of sexual misconduct against the young athletes he treated. More than 260 people have since accused Nassar of abuse. “I thought daily about all the little women and girls walking in his office and I wondered if it would ever, ever end.”
In the vast majority of the United States, including Nassar’s home state of Michigan, laws called statute of limitations set deadlines, often just a few years, by which civil or criminal charges can be filed against someone. But in the wake of Nassar’s high-profile trial and the widespread #MeToo movement, at least 17 states introduced bills to loosen those deadlines, according to a VICE News’ review of legislature dockets.
Inspired by the Nassar scandal, Michigan state Sen. Margaret O’Brien wants Michigan to become known as the “the state where we protect children from being sexually assaulted.” She recently cosponsored a package of bills, which passed the state’s Senate on Wednesday, to lengthen many of Michigan’s civil and criminal statutes of limitations for child sex abuse victims.
Advocates for statutes of limitation warn that waiting to prosecute could leave people unable to fairly defend themselves, since memories fade and evidence deteriorates. But reform supporters point to the pile of sex abuse scandals, most recently with Harvey Weinstein and Nassar, as catalysts for the laws to change. With longer statutes of limitations or none at all, victims can heal in private and still see justice served.
“For a long time, the rape victims and the child victims looked so vulnerable — they had no lobbies — that it was just very easy to push them back,” said Marci Hamilton, CEO of anti-child abuse group Child USA. “The #MeToo movement does indicate that they are having increasing political power and I think that does make a difference.”
“A barrier to justice”
Forty-three states currently have some type of statute of limitations for felony sex crimes on the books, according to a database by the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), the leading anti-sexual assault group in the United States. The laws vary widely in the time restrictions they impose and the type of crimes they affect: Some laws limit cases to within five years after the crime, while others give a 20-year window. Many states also make exceptions for crimes where police collected DNA evidence.
"The harsh reality is that in most cases, survivors of sexual assault are too deeply traumatized to be able to speak out and pursue justice until decades later."
Advocates for statutes of limitations laws want to ensure that innocent people aren’t prosecuted for crimes they didn’t commit or “he said, she said” situations where they can’t defend themselves.
“It’s very difficult to defend against most sexual assault charges anyway,” said Mike Iacopino, a New Hampshire criminal defense attorney who also serves as the co-chair of the sex offense committee for the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. He thinks states should keep statute of limitations for sexual assault cases. “Even though the burden of proof is not on the defendant, you’ve got to investigate and you’ve got to be able to come up with evidence to negate what is said. And that’s very difficult to do when there’s a huge length of time that’s gone by.”
The New Hampshire Legislature is currently considering both a bill to eliminate the statute of limitations on sexual assault and a bill to study the impact of doing so.
But others point out that sexual assault victims — especially those abused as children — often wait years before speaking out, thanks to the shame and fear that can surround sex crimes. Just 23 percent of people who were raped or sexually assaulted in 2016 reported the crime to law enforcement, the Bureau of Justice Statistics found.
Denhollander said Nassar sexually assaulted her in 2000, but she didn’t publicly name him as a pedophile until 2016. As it turns out, Michigan had already changed the law that Denhollander thought prevented her from filing charges; she just didn’t know. Her police report and interview with the Indianapolis Star made Denhollander the first woman to publicly accuse Nassar of sexual misconduct.
Now, O’Brien wants to reform Michigan’s laws even more.
"The harsh reality is that in most cases, survivors of sexual assault are too deeply traumatized to be able to speak out and pursue justice until decades later," Denhollander told the Michigan Senate Judiciary Committee last month. Both Denhollander and Sterling Riethman, who also said Nassar abused her, met with O’Brien and advocated for statute of limitation reform.
“States of limitations were established at a time when we knew a lot less about victimology about the neurobiology of trauma, about why a victim might not report immediately,” explained Rebecca O’Connor, who serves as RAINN’s vice president of policy. “They’re a barrier to justice for some victims.”
For example, though more than 45 women said Bill Cosby raped or sexually assaulted them, the statutes of limitations expired in all but one case. And one man who said former Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky molested him couldn’t sue because he’d missed the statute of limitations deadline by nine months.
“We’re seeing this movement throughout our country, where we’re saying, ‘Enough’s enough.’”
Right now, Michigan has no statute of limitations for the most severe types of sexual assault, like rape. If someone endures second- or third-degree sexual misconduct, however, prosecutors must bring charges within a decade of the offense or the victim’s 21st birthday, whichever is later. And if people sexually abused as children in Michigan want to bring a civil lawsuit against their abuser, they generally need to do so before their 19th birthday.
If O’Brien’s bills succeed, Michigan won’t have a statute of limitation on indictments for second-degree sexual misconduct against children, and prosecutors would have at least 30 years to bring charges for third-degree misconduct against children. People abused as minors would also have until their 48th birthday to sue.
Most of the 16 state efforts to reform statutes of limitations would give victims of childhood sex abuse more time to come forward, but a few want to completely remove the time limit on some types of sexual assault. South Dakota is also considering a bill to study the impact of weakening statutes of limitations on sex crimes, although no one has proposed a bill yet.
An uphill battle
Though Nassar’s trial and the #MeToo movement are fuelling their activism now, the calls for reform are far from new. Both RAINN and Child USA have supported statute of limitations reforms for years.
And last year, 10 states introduced bills to reform the statutes of limitation on child sex abuse — more than Child USA’s CEO Hamilton said she’d seen in 20 years of advocacy.
“The #MeToo movement has helped a lot this year, but I also think we were building up to it,” Hamilton explained. She ticked off some of the country’s largest sex scandals, like the Boston Globe’s 2002 expose on the Catholic Church’s history of sex abuse and the 2012 conviction of Sandusky for abusing 10 boys. Pennsylvania — where Sandusky was charged and where the sole prosecution against Cosby is taking place — isn’t considering changing its statutes of limitations this year.
But the sexual assault accusations against Cosby have prompted some states to rethink their statutes of limitations, O’Connor said. Although Cosby’s lawyers have argued that the case against him is still too old to be prosecuted, the scandal spurred California to eliminate its statute of limitations on rape last year.
“I think Americans have pretty much had enough,” Hamilton said.
Still, proponents of the proposals will likely face an uphill battle. In a letter to Michigan’s legislature before the Senate vote, a group representing the state’s 15 public universities asked to delay its decision on O’Brien’s bills. The group said the package could damage schools, churches, and other institutions and opened them up to lawsuits that could spike insurance costs and weaken government credit.
The Catholic Church has also fought past efforts to loosen statutes of limitation in states like New York, Colorado, and Massachusetts, which are all considering reforming their statutes of limitations this year. The Church is particularly concerned by so-called statute of limitation “revivals,” which give victims a window of time to retroactively file civil cases against their alleged abusers even if the statute of limitations has passed. After California gave childhood sex abuse survivors a one-year window to file civil claims in 2003, over 500 people ended up participating in a $660 million settlement against the Catholic Church for abuses that stretched back 70 years. The settlement was the largest of its kind at the time.
O’Brien’s package of bills include a one-year “revival” that would allow children abused as far back as 1997 to sue. (Athletes at Michigan State University first reported Nassar’s abuse to school officials in 1997.) A spokesperson for the Michigan Catholic Conference didn’t reply to a request for comment but said last week that the bills inspired by the Nassar scandal were “of concern” to the state’s Catholic lobbying arm.
Still, O’Brien told VICE News that she hopes to pass the package by summer. The bills were referred to a House committee on Thursday.
“These are arguments that would ensure that justice is never given to the Nassar victims or to any other person,” O’Brien said. “We’re seeing this movement throughout our country, where we’re saying, ‘Enough’s enough.’”
Cover image: Larry Nassar listens during his sentencing at Eaton County Circuit Court in Charlotte, Mich., Monday, Feb. 5, 2018. (Cory Morse /The Grand Rapids Press via AP)