‘Serves no purpose in the function of the law:’ Prosecutors, researchers come out against rape statute of limitations

By: - February 20, 2020 1:00 am
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Supporters of an Ohio bill to eliminate the statute of limitations for rape included prosecutors, researchers and members of rape crisis centers from across the state.

Former Ohio Attorney General Marc Dann and the Medina County and Cuyahoga County prosecutors say eliminating the 25-year statute of limitations will help prosecutors bring justice and help victims get the closure they need in rape cases.

“The statute of limitations that applies in rape cases is outdated, it’s arbitrary and serves no purpose in the function of the law,” said S. Forrest Thompson, Medina County Prosecutor.

Thompson named some rape cases he’s dealt with as a prosecutor, including one with a victim who was present at the committee hearing on Wednesday. The rape happened in 1993, and a rape kit (at the time called a sexual assault kit) was collected.

It wasn’t until two decades later that the rape kit was even tested. A 99.9% DNA match came up when it was tested, four months after the case had reached the statute of limitations.

“We know who he is, we can’t do anything about it,” Thompson said.

Assistant Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Richard Bell talked about the major investigation he led against the Cleveland Catholic Diocese, where 500 perpetrators were found to have victimized more than 1,200 people, many of whom were children. Rape kits were collected for cases from 1993 to 2011.

“116 of these perpetrators were priests, but the children’s cases could not be prosecuted,” Bell said.

Bell’s office was able to bring some cases into the courts before the statute of limitations, but only by presenting “John Doe indictments,” in which rape kits were tested and an identity can be obtained, but the rest of the case might cause it to run over the statute of limitations.

Bell said eliminating the statute would also allow victims to come forward after they’ve grieved or mentally processed the crime, which can take time if abuse is hidden in families, for example, or if crimes by the same person go unreported.

“A man who rapes his grandchildren often has raped his own children,” Bell said.

Some advocates testified specifically on the exemptions in Ohio law that allow spouses to be exempt from rape charges.

Sara Wolf-Knight spoke on behalf of YWCA Dayton, Ohio’s biggest domestic violence shelter, which has devoted advocacy specifically to spousal rape. She said misconceptions that rape does not exist in a marital relationship are perpetuated by the state’s laws on the subject.

“No marriage license or show of force changes the definition of what rape is,” Wolf-Knight said.

Academic researchers testified to their own studies on sexual assault and rape. Rachel Lovell, Ph.D., a research assistant professor with the Begun Center for Violence Prevention Research and Education at Case Western Reserve University said the center’s five-year study of sexual assault kits found several points relevant to the elimination of the statute of limitations.

In the study of more than 1,100 sexual assaults and nearly 7,000 rape kits in Cuyahoga County, Lovell said they found that serial sexual offending is far more common than previous research had suggested, and that convictions for decades-old sexual assaults are “possible and likely” with the inclusion of DNA/forensic evidence, investigative, and victim support resources.

The final finding of the study was that false reporting of sexual assault and rape is rare, something Lovell said has been a concern for opponents of the bill.

“However, research has consistently shown that false reporting is rare – between 2 and 10% for rape, which is on par with other types of serious crimes and much lower than crimes such as robbery,” Lovell said.

Members of several rape crisis centers had their time during the committee hearing, spending it explaining why some rape and sexual assault survivors don’t come forward at the time of the incident. Sometimes it’s shame, sometimes it’s the position of power the perpetrator holds. Sometimes it can be denial of the incident all together, and sometimes it’s distrust of the legal system to protect them.

“Whatever the reason they were unable to pursue justice at the time of the crime, they should not be denied the opportunity to see their perpetrator be held accountable if and when the day comes that they are ready to go forward,” said Velda “Dodie” Sacia, a volunteer at the Rape Crisis Center of Medina and Summit Counties.

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Susan Tebben
Susan Tebben

Susan Tebben is an award-winning journalist with a decade of experience covering Ohio news, including courts and crime, Appalachian social issues, government, education, diversity and culture. She has worked for The Newark Advocate, The Glasgow (KY) Daily Times, The Athens Messenger, and WOUB Public Media. She has also had work featured on National Public Radio.