Limitations on Child Sexual Abuse Cases Eliminated

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by Atty. William Bloss
The Justice Journal

August 1, 2007

Victims of sexual assault and sexual abuse finally have achieved a major victory in their quest to bring their assailants from long-ago crimes to justice.

The previous 20-year statute of limitations on some sexual offenses, including those against children, had long been considered out of date, and victims’ advocates urged the legislature to revise it to allow a much longer period for legal action against sexual offenders.

Although an initiative to scrap the existing statute and replace it with one that reflects the current state of investigative techniques in these cases passed the House of Representatives, it nearly died in the Senate as this year’s session wound down. But the state Senate rose to the occasion and voted to make a positive difference in the prosecution of these cases.

Sections of the original House bill dealing with the statute of limitations were included in two additional bills including the newly enacted Jessica’s Law. Both laws, Public Act 07-4 and Public Act 07-143, which include provisions in the original bill, have been signed into law by Governor Jodi Rell. The bills essentially remove the statute of limitations, so long as the crimes are reported to authorities within five years of their occurrence. This provision advances important interests for victims, while protecting persons who might be accused of the crimes. Child sexual abuse now joins murder and certain classes of arson that have no limitations period.

The reasoning behind the move to extend the statute of limitations largely stems from advances in science, especially in DNA testing. A vital protection in the new laws is that the statute of limitations is dropped only in cases where a suspect has been identified through DNA evidence.

While some evidence in such cases was not considered to be useful in an earlier era, it has been demonstrated repeatedly in more recent cases that samples obtained while investigating sexual assault cases even decades ago now can be analyzed and compared to recently obtained DNA samples. Providing DNA samples is now mandatory for persons convicted of state and federal felonies.

Ongoing law enforcement efforts to build databases of DNA samples are giving police vastly expanded opportunities to apply DNA evidence collected recently to bring about resolution of crimes that were reported long ago.

Media attention has focused on the resolution of long-dead “cold” cases that are revived and solved long after they had been relegated to the “unsolved” file. Investigations into many such cases are being revived with positive results in terms of proving guilt. But just as importantly, DNA evidence has also been used to prove that a suspect has been unjustly accused or even imprisoned.

There can be no question of the destruction caused by sexual abuse. It is hardly surprising that victims of child sexual abuse suffer long into adulthood.

It has been well over a decade since the 1991 extension of the civil statute of limitations for sexual abuse crimes against children. The civil law changes were initially met with some skepticism, but the predictions of opponents that the extension would flood the courts with untimely and stale claims have not come to pass. With so much more evidence and advanced techniques now at their disposal, the bill’s backers argued that there was no reason why the criminal statute should not be extended as well.

Many of the victims of these long-ago crimes have waited patiently for the legal system to give them their day in court. These victims were often so young at the time of the crime that they did not possess the wherewithal to speak up, and see the issue through a lengthy police and court process.

But many have come forward as they entered adulthood, bringing confidence and knowledge with them. It may not be possible for society to protect the young and innocent from everything that can come their way during childhood, but there is no valid reason to prevent them from seeking and finding fair justice as adults.

Although advances in science are giving us new hope for the rights of victims, we also must diligently protect the rights of the accused. Due process is every bit as important as a victim’s right to find justice, but since extending the statute of limitations applies only in certain narrow circumstances, in which scientific evidence provides important information on the identity of the perpetrator; in the abstract it is hard to envision a wrongful prosecution or conviction. Of course, the law must be applied and enforced fairly, and the positive experience with the civil statute of limitations suggests that it can be.

Cases will still follow the approved procedures, judges and juries will still weigh evidence and arrive at conclusions regarding the guilt or innocence of the accused. As noted above, in some cases DNA evidence may well exonerate the accused rather than lead to prosecution and punishment.

Regardless, the system ought to work. The victims—as well as the accused—will be able to resolve issues that in many cases have dominated their lives since childhood. There have been many scientific advances in the past few decades, and for the victims of sexual abuse, few can be more important that the advances in DNA evidence.

The combination of efforts by the legislature, the governor, the judicial system and victims’ advocates has shaken off the procedures of the past, and has brought the interests of victims, and indeed those of society at large, up to par with the evidentiary advances provided by modern science.

Atty. William M. Bloss, a Guilford resident, specializes in significant personal injury cases as well as complex civil and criminal litigation in both state and federal courts. He represented Common Cause and Connecticut Citizen Action Group in federal litigation that led to the overhaul of the state primary election system and has served as both Special Master and arbitrator in state and federal courts. He was appointed to the federal court’s Criminal Justice Act Committee and is a member of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.