The statute of limitations in sexual abuse cases presents a problem for prosecutors. Many states limit the time a person has to report the abuse. The limits vary from state to state, yet they generally end within 10 years of the victim turning 18. This creates a confounding situation because many victims wait years to report the abuse. It is also troublesome in that each state varies how the law works.
In some states, the limitation is based on the last incident of abuse. In others, it is based on the person’s age. Illinois, where I live, uses the latter. The law currently states that people have until they are 38 to file a complaint, but only if they were born after 1981. This limit was removed to an extent in 2013. It now allows sex crimes against children to be reported at any time, however, this only applies if someone already reported the abuse or if there is evidence supporting the accusation.
The logic behind getting rid of the limitations is simple, as the Chicago Tribune explains:
[Here’s] what closing the loophole would do: It would leave open to those who are under 38 now (because the statute of limitations isn’t expired yet), and who were abused as children, a legal path to justice indefinitely, without the narrow requirements of corroborating evidence or failure to report. […] Ending the statute of limitations would recognize what experts on child sexual abuse have learned: that many victims are simply unable to deal with, let alone talk about, the abuse they suffered as children until much later in life.
“The science suggests that most of these people are just incapable of coming forward earlier,” Marc Pearlman, a Chicago attorney who represents victims in civil cases, told the Tribune. “If you have a statute of limitations where 99 percent of the crimes can’t be prosecuted, there’s a problem with the statute of limitations.”
That sounds reasonable, and to a degree I support the position. Many people are not ready to report what happened to them immediately after the abuse or even years after the abuse.
The problem, however, is that as time passes, so does the corroborating evidence of the abuse happening. This creates a situation in which prosecutors may only have a single piece of evidence — the alleged victim’s testimony — to work with. While many of those cases may not go to trial, plenty of them will, and that is where it can become troubling because it would be rather easy for someone to tell a plausible lie.
People will read that and become angry, yet these types of cases do happen. For example:
A retired fire chief falsely accused of sexually abusing a boy 40 years ago has had his conviction overturned after it emerged his accuser was a fantasist and serial liar.
David Bryant, 66, who had received commendations for bravery, spent almost three years behind bars for a crime he did not commit, solely on the evidence of a man with a history of mental illness.
Mr Bryant, who was station commander in Christchurch in Dorset, said the case against him should never have been brought and accused the police and Crown Prosecution Service of gross failings that led to him being jailed.
Mr Bryant also called for an urgent review of how historic sex abuse cases are investigated having suffered a “living hell”.
Danny Day claimed that Bryant and another deceased fireman raped him during the late 1970s. However, investigators discovered that Day had a history of lying. This evidence never reached the jury, and they convicted Bryant. He was sentenced initially to six years, which was later raised to eight and a half years.
Day claimed to have a boxing record better than Muhammad Ali’s and stated in his civil suit against the fire department that the abuse ruined his chances to enter the 1984 Olympics.
Granted, Day could still have lied about those things and myriad of others and still have been abused by Bryant. The issue, however, is that there was no other evidence supporting his claim. Yet, according to the article:
A CPS spokeswoman said: “The CPS reviewed the available evidence at the time in this case and decided it was sufficient and was in the public interest to prosecute.
“However, new evidence recently came to light about the credibility of a key witness which fatally undermined the prosecution case. Based on this new evidence, we did not seek to oppose the appeal.”
Part of the reason this happened was due to the failure prosecute former BBC personality Jimmy Savile. Day claimed the Savile coverage prompted him to come forward in 2012, and it appears the police may have rushed into this case to make it seem like they were going after sex offenders.
Yet the other reason this happened was because there was only one source of evidence: Danny Day. That tends to be the case in most instances of people reporting abuse decades after it occurred. It does not mean the person is lying, yet it should prompt concern with how easy it would be for someone to lie and not be caught. Day’s mouth revealed his lies. Had he remained silent, Bryant would still be in jail for something he did not do.
The Tribune claims:
It also would not likely usher in a wave of child sex abuse allegations. Without physical evidence and corroborating witnesses, child sex abuse cases are extremely difficult to prosecute. Eliminating the statute of limitations might compound prosecutors’ difficulty of proving he-said-she-said cases; defense attorneys will tell judges and juries that too much time has passed to prove guilt beyond reasonable doubt.
We have seen with cases against the Catholic Church and the Boy Scouts of America that this is not true. Many of those cases involve abuse that allegedly occurred decades before the person came forward. In some instances there are prior reports to officials, yet in most there are not. It is simply one person’s word against another.
Again, this is not to say that every person or most people who would come forward would lie. It is to say, however, that removing the statute of limitations without requiring something more than one person’s word will create a greater opportunity for manipulation of the system.