Last week, California governor Jerry Brown signed into law the Justice for Victims Act, which will remove the statue of limitations for sex crimes in the state. The law has been referenced as the "Cosby Bill" by media and lawmakers alike, since only one of more than 50 alleged victims of Cosby's can prosecute in criminal court due to statute of limitations on sex crimes in states like California. (The singular criminal case, brought by Andrea Constand, will take place in Pennsylvania.)
California's new law, which follows in the footsteps of 17 other states, allows for the indefinite prosecution of rape, sodomy, and lewd or lascivious acts by anyone, at any age, at anytime. Previously, California imposed a ten-year statute of limitations on rape and other sex crimes. Senator Connie Leyva, who introduced the bill into the state legislature, said in a statement that it will "offer victims more time to come to terms with the horrible crime committed against them and then build up the courage to [approach] the authorities to seek justice." The application of the law won't be retroactive and the parameters will apply only to crimes committed after the law goes into effect on January 1, 2017.
The bill received unanimous support in both the California senate and assembly, and has been lauded by women's and victim's advocacy groups alike. But defense attorneys, civil libertarians, and advocates for the wrongly accused have been critical. While those who rallied behind the law referred to the ten-year statute of limitations as "arbitrary," critics say allowing more time to pass creates a wider margin for error.
"My fear is that it's really dangerous, because even the smallest number of years after a crime it's really hard to mount a defense," Troy W. Slaten, a criminal defense attorney and former prosecutor, said. "Human memory is fleeting, nobody's memory gets better with time, eye-witness testimony is unreliable, alibis can become impossible to prove, records are thrown away, witnesses may move or die. All it takes is an accusation, [and] anyone can accuse anyone of anything."
Over the past 25 years, more than 1,800 people convicted of serious crimes have been proved innocent, according to the University of Michigan Law School's National Registry of Exonerations. And that number reflects only the luckiest of the innocent, who were exonerated legally on the record, as opposed to others who may be innocent but never had their cases reexamined.
Defense attorneys and civil rights activists have argued that this bill may lead to even more false convictions, like those of Brian Banks and John Kinsel, who spent five and 16 years in prison, respectively, before their accusers recanted their allegations and the men were found innocent.
"Elimination of a statute of limitations can be helpful for those woman and men who do not initially come forward," Yosha Gunasekera, a public defender in New York, said. But she added that it can also have "unintended consequences, including false convictions, as memories fade over time."
In New York State, which no longer imposes a statute of limitations on rape, there have been "over 30 exonerations where a person was convicted of a sex crime primarily because of misidentification," according to Gunasekera. "And there are sure to be dozens, if not hundreds more."
Of course, there may be more to gain by removing the statute of limitations than keeping it. Advocates and lawmakers who support these laws hope that removing the time limit will act as a warning to sexual predators, instilling the idea that fear of criminal consequences related to rape or sexual assault won't go unpunished—even if the victim doesn't come forward right away. Leyva, the sponsor of the California law, said in an earlier statement that the bill will "help to ensure that rapists and sexual predators are not able to evade justice simply because of a shortened statute of limitations."
But Slaten worries this could cause cases to drag on indefinitely. "Even when it comes to allegations as disgusting and abhorrent as rape and sexual misconduct, we need finality in our judicial system," he said.
One organization that's benefited from that finality is the Catholic Church, which faced more than 3,400 allegations of sexual abuse by Catholic priests between 2004 and 2014. The Catholic Church has spent millions of dollars lobbying against the removal of statute of limitations in various states—presumably to avoid lawsuits stemming from the many accusations of pedophilia, molestation, and rape involving the church.
Timothy Dolan, the archbishop of New York, told New York Daily News that the church's primary reason for opposing bills such as these is that "the perpetrators don't suffer." Instead, he said, "what suffers are the services and the ministries and the apostolates that we're doing now. The bishops of 30 years ago who allegedly may have reassigned abusers, they don't suffer. They're dead, all right?"
But for supporters, California's new law represents a victory for victims of sex crimes—and will hopefully encourage other states to follow suit in removing their statute of limitations on sex crimes.
"I think [it is] possible to find balance in providing justice to victims while also protecting the civil rights of the accused, particularly if there's evidence, corroboration, and claims can substantiated," Barbara Matthews, a New York–based attorney, said. "The removing of these statutes will act as huge deterrents to people like Bill Cosby and others in power who instill fear in order to exploit and silence their victims."
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