Over 50 women have accused actor Bill Cosby of sexual abuse, but the former television star faces criminal charges in just one case. This imbalance is largely due to the stringent legal deadlines, or statutes of limitations, put on sexual abuse cases.
Statute of limitations are generally placed on crimes where physical evidence is hard to achieve. Their prosecution instead relies primarily on first-person testimonies. Legal deadlines thus help ensure cases are quickly investigated when memories and any hard evidence is fresh and can be readily confirmed.
For example, charges of murder and embezzlement of public funds carry no time limit due the high possibility of hard evidence — the body in the former and money trail in the latter. In contrast, a 10-year old sexual assault case often relies only on testimony, motive, and opportunity, unless corroborative hospital and similar third-party records exist.
While officials recognize this difficulty, the severity of the Cosby accusations has incited national discussions about the validity of such deadlines. California and Nevada have taken these discussions to the next level and are attempting to remove time barriers to just prosecution — or at least move the line in the sand a bit further away.
Both houses of the California Legislature approved a new proposal to abolish the time limits for charging a person with rape, oral copulation, sodomy, lewd or lascivious acts, and continuous sex abuse of a child. Most of these crimes carry a 10-year statute of limitation in California, but the proposal mirrors a new Nevada law increasing their state deadline for rape prosecution from a mere four years to 20.
The bill now rests in the hands of Gov. Jerry Brown, who has a history of vetoing similar bills seeking to extend legal deadlines for sexual abuse lawsuits. Even if Gov. Brown waves the legislation through, there is no guarantee, given the difficulty in prosecuting sexual assault, that convictions will rise. According to non-profit RAINN’s research on sexual assault, for every 1,000 rapes in the United States, only 6 perpetrators will ever be incarcerated. Allegations of even older sex-related crimes will likely be more difficult for prosecutors to prove beyond reasonable doubt.
“But at least it gives victims an opportunity for law enforcement to really look into this,” said the bill’s co-sponsor, San Bernardino County Dist. Atty. Mike Ramos. “At least they have their day to sit down and say what happened.”
If you or someone you love has been the victim of sexual abuse, please contact our office at 888-212-0440 for a free case review.