A statute of limitations is a law which stops people from being charged with a crime committed more than a set number of years in the past.
It’s basically an expiry date for when you can be charged with a crime. If you committed a crime, but the statute of limitations has passed; you cannot be charged.
In the USA the length of the Statute of Limitations for sex crimes, including rape, differs state-by-state.
Actor-Comedian Bill Cosby is currently accused of a long list of sexual assaults. The majority of the alleged crimes took place way back in the 1970s and 1980s; because of the statute of limitations he won’t be charged. However one of the accusations claims Cosby drugged and abused a woman in 2008, because this is within the statute of limitations Bill is in a lot of trouble.
In the UK there is no time limit, which is why Labour peer Lord Janner is facing a trial for sex crimes dating back to the 1960s.
The main argument for the statute is that over time evidence will become less reliable. Physical evidence may deteriorate or get lost. Witnesses’ memories of events will become blurred over time.
Various psychological studies on memory support this. Psychologist Elizabeth Loftus suggested that information provided after the event can significantly alter existing memories. In a study she showed participants a video of a robbery, and then a news report of the same event. Though the news report contained errors, many participants included these in their own version of what happened. All sounds a bit like Inception.
The physical signs of abuse will also fade over time; making it very difficult and time-consuming to put a case together. Another argument for the statute of limitations is that people deserve the right to a swift trial. They also shouldn’t have to fear prosecution for a minor crime like shoplifting if it occurred many years in the past.
Research has shown that victims of sexual abuse take longer to come forward. A report on child sexual abuse in Australia found that it took on average 22 years to come forward.
Some states in America have statutes of limitation as short as three years for sexual abuse. It’s easy to see how many victims won’t get justice as they come forward too late.
In the case of Bill Cosby; even if he is found guilty of sexual assault in the 2008 case, his punishment may be less severe compared to the sentence he might have faced if found guilty of all the other alleged crimes.
Statutes Explained; count off the days ‘til you can safely admit to past crimes
Should the USA get rid of the Statute of Limitations for Sexual Abuse? Or should countries like the UK create a similar rule?