Statutes of Limitations

Contributed by Charles Platt

For two weeks, now, UK residents have been stunned by an avalanche of revelations–or at least accusations–regarding the BBC and one of its most famous, nationally revered figures, Sir Jimmy Savile, a disc jockey who hosted shows over a period of decades. Savile endeared himself to the British by doing charity work for hospitals, and was even given his own little room at one, allowing him free access to the entire facility. Apparently he used this access to molest young people, many of them under the age of consent, when they were incapacitated or in wheel chairs. I’m reminded of Willie Sutton’s famous quote, explaining that he robbed banks because “that’s where the money was.” Savile appears to have volunteered at a hospital because “that’s where the helpless young girls were.” The appearance of cold-blooded premeditation is remarkable.

He was also a frequent visitor to a “reform home” for “troubled young girls,” some of whom he would take for rides in his Rolls Royce, where the self-described victims have alleged that sex acts occurred in the back seat. Several hundred women have now come forward with allegations. One BBC executive has already resigned, while others are finding it difficult to claim that they knew nothing. Contemporaries of Savile who are still alive, especially in the music-broadcasting section of the BBC, are being named as co-conspirators. Savile seems to have gotten away with it because he was protected by his fame, his wealth, and his charitable donations to the very places where he has been accused of preying on innocents. Others who worked with him are much more vulnerable, even though they may be now in their 70s and 80s.

Since Savile is now dead, the British press is relatively free to run with this story, despite the strict libel laws in the UK. Journalists have been far more circumspect about naming living suspects–until they issue statements of denial, at which point they become “fair game.”

More interesting to me (but less relevant to this blog) is that there is no statute of limitations on serious sex crimes in the UK. Since many of the alleged events occurred in the 1970s, a defendant may have a hard time coming up with exculpatory evidence to refute the allegations of a sobbing alleged victim in a court room. A blog here claims that in Germany, claims from victims dropped by 80% when that nation discontinued its practice of awarding compensation to crime victims, except where there was corroborative evidence. The same blog claims that, conversely, in Britain, where compensation is paid to victims, claims of abuse that occured decades ago have doubled during the past three years, coincidentally with the economic downturn. 

A statute of limitations may seem intuitively unjust to many people. If the crime occurred, why should someone get away with it just because it happened more than, say, 7 years ago? I note that in some areas of the US, limitations have already been abolished or modified for sex offenses, thus copying the British model.

I am assuming that readers of this blog would distrust any further erosion of statutes of limitations, especially if such protection was reduced or eliminated in First Amendment cases.

Or would they?

13 Responses to Statutes of Limitations

  1. Tim says:

    Nothing on that blog you link to is sourced or in any way verifiable.

    But surely the issue is when serious, systemic abuse is covered up institutionally for long periods of time.

  2. markkernes says:

    Statutes of limitation have their place, but as we saw with the child molestation by Catholic priests which began coming to light about a decade ago, molestation charges especially seem to need a longer statute, since victims in our sexually-insane culture may not come forward until they’re well into their teens or 20s. Some states have extended the time period within which such molestations can be reported and prosecuted; more need to do so.

  3. Charles Platt says:

    I would feel happier about extending statutes of limitations for child abuse if the standard of proof also increased somewhat, in recognition of the increasing difficulty for an accused person to mount a defense. If someone accused me of something that supposedly happened 15 years ago, how could I possibly defend myself? I’m not even certain where I was living at that time. I throw away my tax records (including rent receipts and other data) after 8 years. And a tearful defendant who has finally, supposedly, found the courage to come forward is likely to be emotionally appealing to a jury. And I’m not sure I understand why sexual assault should be placed in a totally different category from other things that can traumatize someone, such as physical assault.

    • As someone with unfortunately close experience of a child molestation case involving two very young girls (aged 2-7 and 4-9), I can definitely see that sexual assault is a very different thing indeed from plain ol’ physical assault. So yes, there needs to be a completely separate category of offences, in terms of psychological damage.

      Unfortunately for these victims, they were deemed too young and “unreliable” for a conviction. This, despite damning evidence of bodily mutilation by the perp, and the perp’s own children coming out to announce confirmation of his depredations! If a torn 7-year-old’s vagina isn’t evidence enough, what is? (I won’t do more than mention the defence lawyer’s assertion that the child did it to herself when riding a bicycle).

      And how do you go about picking up the pieces when you’ve “exposed” yourself in that way – albeit in a “closed” court? Actual experience suggests that 16+ years of expensive, ongoing psychotherapy only just manages to submerge the horror, but I can’t imagine what it must feel like to end up without a formal conviction after all of that!

      This isn’t meant to be an emotional plea (although I do have extreme difficulty managing my composure).

      But a punch in the face (unless it results in some terrible permanent injury) together with any evidence gathered immediately after the offence, is a very different beast than years of physical and emotional torture, exacerbated by the need to expose more of your body and mind that most of us would be able to manage and retain our dignity.

      Unfortunately, this is a very different situation to what you’re describing in terms of people taking advantage of a legal “prize” awarded to the best actors/actresses. I also disagree with abuse of the process; but since it’s the only one available, in most cases, I suspect it does need to allow for human fear in genuine cases. And sometimes, it takes years before someone can even talk, let alone talk about what happened to them when they were in a situation with no power.

      I don’t know who I loathe more – the actual perpetrators, or those members of the public who are happy to mock the real victims and make it more, not less, difficult to come forward.

      Oh, and if you want emotional, how about the fact that the perp’s wife – an accessory – has now married the perp’s identical twin brother, who had nothing to do with the crimes? Shudder.

      • Charles Platt says:

        I appreciate the perspective very much. I suppose I might add that I am not entirely objective on this subject myself, as I was a victim of molestation in my childhood, although on a less severe level than you describe. Still, it did affect my whole life. A therapist once delivered the memorable line to me: “In view of your experiences with your mother, I’m surprised you have ever managed to have a relationship with any woman.” It used to be very difficult for me to write about this, but I was fortunate to find someone who helped me through it. I eventually married and have a fully grown daughter.

        The question in my mind is whether it would have helped me at all if my mother had been punished. I tend to doubt it. (She is dead, now.) Sometimes the legal system does not seem to be the right tool for the job–although I do understand the value of protecting others who may be vulnerable in the future. But does that require locking up child molesters for life? This of course gets us into the whole issue of the utility of the prison system, which seems so utterly primitive to me, I have very little use for that either.

        • Yeah, punishment and justice seem to be two very different things, especially with such deeply intimate issues.

          Would putting the particular animal I mentioned in jail have done anything to help his victims? Almost certainly not… but it’s a pleasant pastime for me to consider his ultimate situation, should that have happened. (Sorry, that’s not very nice of me, I know.)

          But in a violent and ultimately physically and mentally destructive crime, how long _should_ victims wait before speaking up? A year? 10? 40? It’s so difficult to define.

          It might be helpful to find out how many of Savile’s actual victims spoke up while he was alive, and what happened to them then, as opposed to now that he’s physically incapable of raping any more victims for eternity.

          Maybe the statute needs to be defined as “the term of his* natural life” (plus celebration/breathing freely time when the perp finally dies, plus time to contact legal help, etc).

          * I’m not aware of many (but I’m sure there must be, as you proposed yourself) female perpetrators of sexual crimes. Pardon my sexism.

  4. LSutter says:

    In the wake of the Sandusky scandal The New York Times, for one, has been advocating for the abolition of statutes of limitation, but I think Mr. Platt has the better of the argument. To assume a limitless opportunity to sue would not be abused is naive. Society is not better served by replacing one injustice with another.

  5. twwells says:

    Statutes of limitations exist to protect the innocent. Thus, observations like, “Little Sally got raped at age 5 and can’t get the law to punish her assailant because of a statute of limitations”, are irrelevant. To advocate against statutes of limitations based on such observations is to say that it’s OK for Sally to get her justice at the expense of other innocents. Sorry, Sally, but you’re not special; you’ll just have to accept that sometimes justice is not possible.

    • “Statutes of limitations exist to protect the innocent.”

      I must be really stupid this week; I just don’t get that. Could you (or anyone else) maybe give an example of how someone who’s innocent of a crime (such as child molestation) is protected by preventing legal attack, while still enabling a guilty party to be successfully prosecuted?

  6. Charles Platt says:

    Alternatively, Sally may be fortunate enough to live in a state such as New York, which allows a victim to bring suit up until she (or he) is 23, regardless of when the alleged act occurred. Some states, I believe, have eliminated statute of limitations entirely for sexual crimes involving minors. The Catholic Church has been lobbying against the elimination (or revision) of statutes of limitations, seeing itself as an irresistible target for law suits from unscrupulous litigators if limitations are removed completely. The NYTimes has published a summary:

    Another aspect of the situation that bothers me is that so far as I can tell, insufficient attention is being paid to the actual age of the child. Abuse at age 5 is presumably far worse than abuse at age 15. Yet teenagers sexting each other may find that conviction (no matter how lenient the sentence) can result in “sex offender” status with all the nightmares that this entails. Factor in the quixotic differences in age of consent from one state to another (states in the US range from 16 to 18, while some of our friends south of the border think that 12 is okay), and I see the whims of legislators being applied piecemeal to difficult social and biological questions, with religion probably being a factor stirred into the mix.

    I conjecture that this is a difficult issue partly because, during most of the history of our species, a girl became eligible for intercourse and pregnancy as soon as she started menstruating, and procreation was a very high priority (after food and shelter) for survival of the species. Therefore modern laws regarding age of consent are running up against very deeply embedded male reproductive imperatives. Anytime I see a sports bar full of half-drunk guys staring at beautiful young female athletes in skin-tight leotards on TV, performing acrobatic moves that entail opening and closing their legs in front of the camera, I find it hard to believe that their interest is entirely innocent. The civilized part of our brains presumably knows that lusting after 15-year-olds is wrong; the less civilized part may not feel the same way.

  7. twwells says:

    If the goal of statutes of limitations is to protect the innocent, a necessary corollary is that the limitations must be such as to allow an innocent person a reasonable chance to defend himself against an accusation. That requires a relatively short period. There’s nothing about crimes against children that fundamentally changes this.

    The problem is not difficult; what is difficult is getting people who work themselves into a frenzy about crimes against children to butt out and let sensible people form the laws. But then, since when have sensible people had much say over the law?

  8. Cimmerian says:

    Here in the Czech Republic when the offender commits a new crime punishable by the same or higher sentence as the previous one the limitation period for the previous one starts all over. So as long as there would be conviction for the newer crimes and as long as those happened within the statute of limitations of the older ones, the court could reach as long back as to 70s although the typical statute of limitations for these crimes is 12 years.

  9. Crime v tort.

    A little English perspective may assist – whilst there is no statute of limitations to the crime (and still beyond reasonable doubt standard of proof) there is on any action for damages which is 3 years from action accruing (or majority) for most personal injury so for mist victims long expired. The lead Roman Catholic abuse case is A v Hoare and, sets a high standard to obtain the court’s indulgence to waive that limitation period.

    Essentially they are difficult attempts to obtain that discretion as the Court is obliged to balance justice to both parties and the effect of time on evidence is a highly arguable factor.

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