Saturday, December 17, 2011

Statute of limitations for sex crimes

A CNN columnist writes:
There are various reasons why we have statutes of limitations for crimes, other than the worst felonies, and for torts. Memories fade. Witnesses die. Evidence goes bad. We want to encourage plaintiffs to bring suit as quickly after the alleged injury as possible. Potential defendants should be able to get on with their lives without worrying about getting charged or sued for acts alleged from long ago. If anyone could sue anyone at anytime it would further clog an already congested legal system. In most cases, this all makes sense.

Not so for child sexual abuse. The very nature of the crime is predicated on secrecy and shame and manipulation. It often takes years, decades even, for victims to grasp what has happened: that an adult, often a trusted authority figure or a family member, did horribly wrong by them. ...

Over the objections of numerous groups -- insurance lobbies, teachers unions, Roman Catholic clergymen -- some states have decided to suspend the statute of limitations for these crimes, a tacit recognition of the unique dynamics of child sex crimes. Delaware recently suspended the statute of limitations for two years, creating a window for those previously time-barred to come forward. More than 100 alleged victims emerged.

In California, a similar suspension spurred more than 300 lawsuits, some dating back to episodes from the 1950s. "It's clear that it can take a long, long time before victims are ready to confront abuse and everything that can come with it," says Marci Hamilton, a law professor at Cardozo Law School and a lawyer for one of the accusers in the Sandusky case. "It's just wrong to have [policy] that favors the predator."
This is backwards. The more horrible and harmful the crime, the more we need the statute of limitations.

Yes, of course suspending the statute of limitations will encourage lawsuits. When people find out that the Catholic Church had hundreds of millions of dollars to pay out against claims, then they have a recovered memory about some allegation from decades ago.

When I hear a sex crime allegation, I ask myself: Is the charge plausible? Was there a contemporaneous complaint? Is there physical evidence? Does the accuser have an ulterior motive to make a false accusation?

I never believed the accusations in the McMartin preschool trial or Duke lacrosse case or Michael Jackson trial or DSK case for just those reasons. Implausible stories. No hard evidence. Non-credible accusers. And I am dubious about the Penn State sex abuse scandal for just those same reasons.

Yes, sex abuse is bad. If it happens, report it to the police and get the physical evidence. Sex abuse is universally considered abominable, and no police cover up these crimes. The perps are always prosecuted and convicted. But when someone says that it is so bad that the usual rules of justice have to be suspended, I get worried.

The Pann State accusers all have this in common: They did not make a prompt complaint. They have no witnesses. They have no physical evidence. The allegations are about events many years ago. And they are suing for millions of dollars. The only exception is McQueary, but he is not credible for other reasons. He has changed his story. His grand jury story is implausible. He traded his testimony for immunity. And he is a morally damaged man himself.

It is possible that jurors will ultimately find McQueary persuasive, but his story hinges on details of conversations from 2002. Most people are unable to remember a 9-year-old conversation, and our justice system has no way of resolving a discrepancy between two different accounts of a 9-year-old conversation.

We laugh at medieval prosecutors who convicted witches, but we have our own witch-hunts.

No comments: