Wednesday, July 15, 2015

The US-UK divide on sex cases: Statute of Limitations

Bill Cosby faces a string of allegations of sexual assault but cannot be prosecuted in the US because of the statute of limitations. In the UK there is no time limit in sexual abuse and other serious cases. What explains this difference?

The statute of limitations is effectively an expiry date for allegations of crimes. And that expiry date varies from state to state in the US.

In recent years in the UK, there have been a number of high-profile prosecutions of historical sexual abuse cases. Entertainer Rolf Harris was jailed last year for offences that took place between 1968 and 1986. Broadcaster Stuart Hall was jailed in 2013 for offences between 1967 and 1985. TV weather presenter Fred Talbot was jailed this year for offences that took place in 1975 and 1976. 

Labour peer Lord Janner is currently facing criminal proceedings relating to 22 allegations of sexual abuse against nine children during the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s.

But in the US the law in most states is typically very different.[...]

Thirty-four states have statutes of limitations - with time limits from three years to 30 years. Taking the example of the offence of rape, the three bordering states of Georgia, Florida and Alabama highlight just how uneven the law can be.

Georgia has a limit of 15 years. Victims in Florida must bring their case within four years. But there are no limitations at all across the state border in Alabama. 

Some states do make exemptions if a DNA match is found many years later - although even these can carry time limits.

But even if a perpetrator walks straight into a police station and confesses, there's no guarantee of prosecution.

Bart Bareither did exactly that in Indiana last year. He confessed to raping Jenny Wendt nine years earlier. Wendt hadn't reported the crime as she didn't have DNA evidence to prove it and didn't trust that he'd spend a day in prison. 

And despite Bareither's confession, he won't. Indiana's statute of limitation on rape is just five years.
Since then Wendt has successfully campaigned to change the state's law - now known as "Jenny's Law" - to allow later prosecution if there's DNA evidence or a confession. 

Most of Europe also imposes limitations for sexual abuse proceedings.[...]

The fundamental principle of a statute of limitations is to protect the defendants.

The notion dates as far back as ancient Greece, explains Penney Lewis, a law professor at King's College London. There are two main reasons behind it, she says. 

One is that there should be some finality, so that a person can move on with their life without the constant threat of prosecution hanging over their heads, Lewis says.

The second is about ensuring a fair trial for the defendant, she adds.

"There's a practical matter - it becomes so much more difficult to prosecute cases that occurred years and years ago," says Jennifer Temkin, law professor at City University London. "Memories can fade."

Despite the UK's general lack of statutory limitations on prosecuting historical sexual abuse cases, many were still dropped before trial, says criminal barrister Kama Melly. [...]

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