The arbitrary ten-year time limit for reporting rape in the state of California is one step closer to being abolished. Last Thursday, the California Assembly approved a bill 70-0 that would allow victims of rape and other felony sex crimes to pursue justice against their assailants, no matter how long they wait to come forward.
Activists say the measure could help fix law enforcement's dismal record when it comes to prosecuting rape. Only an estimated three percent of rapists ever see a day in jail, partially because some victims wait to press charges until after the statute of limitations has passed out of shame or fear of reprisal.
"Currently, California has no time limit on prosecuting murder or the embezzlement of public money," Ivy Bottini and Caroline Heldman, co-chairs of the End Rape Statute of Limitations Campaign, pointed out in a press release. "Surely rape should be treated as seriously as embezzlement."
Some victims already have evidence sitting in state possession that could prove they were raped, if only the laws on the books allowed for the evidence to be seen. Though the new California bill won't be retroactive, meaning that women who were raped years ago still won't be able to see justice, advocates see it as a crucial step forward.
Norma*, a 40-year-old resident of Bakersfield, is one woman who says California's statute of limitations on rape prosecution deprived her of justice. When she was a teenager, she tells Broadly, a 22-year-old family friend spotted her at a supermarket, offered to give her a ride home, and then raped her in a secluded patch of almond trees.
After her mother found out she was pregnant, according to Norma, she beat her and told her the rape was her fault, then forced her to carry the baby to term. "I hated my pregnancy," Norma says, choking back tears. "I hated what was growing inside me. I would hit my stomach and I just wanted to die."
I hated what was growing inside me. I would hit my stomach and I just wanted to die.
Norma's mother didn't report her daughter's rape—perhaps out of fear that police would realize her family, like many others in the San Joaquin Valley, was undocumented. But, crucially for Norma's potential legal case, her mother later dragged her to family court to collect child support from Norma's rapist. The court ordered a DNA test, confirming that the older man was the father, but the state didn't seek to press charges against him for statutory rape even though it was clear that's what had taken place.
Norma emphasizes that was just fourteen at the time, while her rapist was twenty-two. "You'd expect a judge to pick up on that," Norma said.
It was the early 90s, and Kern County's District Attorney office was being run by Ed Jagels, a public attorney who wrongly imprisoned two dozen people for sex abuse. But despite the so-called "witch hunt" against child sexual predators in Kern County, Norma's rapist wasn't questioned. "The whole process was so fast," Norma would later marvel. "They asked me for my name and that was it. In and out."
"You expect a parent to protect you, to stand up for you, to be there. But for me, it was just nothing like that," she added. "And the judge didn't do anything either."
After a suicide attempt more than twenty years later, Norma finally decided she wanted to use the evidence already submitted to the state to prove that she'd been raped but was told that California's statute of limitations had expired and she had no case. While sex crimes committed against minors can be tried before a victim's fortieth birthday, the ruling doesn't apply to crimes that took place before the law went into effect in 2015.
In a particularly Kafkaesque twist, the D.A. told Norma that because her family court case involved a minor, she wouldn't even be allowed to see the paperwork associated with it. "I tried to tell them, 'That minor was me!'" she said, but to no avail.
Today, Norma is fighting to ensure that other victims won't face similar injustices. She plans on attending a demonstration at the state capitol alongside Cosby survivors. "I don't want to hide," she said. "I'm not afraid anymore."
When asked what she would say to governor Jerry Brown, whom activists are hoping will soon sign the bill into law, she paused to gather her breath.
"I would say, 'You turned your back on me. Do I have to be rich for the state to do something about my rape? Do I have to be a certain color?' Because I wasn't wealthy; we were very poor. We had to save our pennies to buy a gallon of milk. If there's no justice for me, that's fine. But I want that justice for other women. I want for them to know that it's never too late."
*Norma did not want her last name used in this article.