Rape survivors: Statute of limitations keeps us from justice

By: - February 24, 2020 12:45 am

Ohio State Capitol building; Jodi Jacobson / Getty Images

Closure takes time. Survivors of rape sometimes need more time than Ohio law gives them.

That was the agreement of the women who came forward to implore an Ohio Senate committee to support the elimination of a statute of limitations on rape.

Anna Cunningham spoke for herself, her daughter, and her son, who both experienced sexual assault at the hands of a family member.

A lifelong resident of Southeast Ohio, Cunningham said rape and abuse, beginning in adolescence at the hands of a man known to her family and continuing through male partners and a spouse, colored many of the decisions in her life.

“I knew better, I grew up in church, we attended three services a week, our father drove one of the buses, my siblings and I attended church camp,” Cunningham said of one time in her life. “I was taught we are supposed to save our ‘virginity’ until marriage and yet I am making the worst decisions of my life.”

In 2016, after her daughter was checked into a behavioral health unit on suicide watch, Cunningham found out her daughter had experienced a similar trauma.

Hazel Nicole, as her daughter is known now after changing her legal name, said her abuser had threatened her life and her family’s life to keep her silent.

“He has hurt me so much,” Hazel told the members of the Senate committee. “It affects me every single day. My body hurts. I feel different.”

Women described their decades-old rapes as wounds unable to heal because their rape kits went untested until 2011, when then-Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine ordered the submission of all untested rape kits for analysis.

When the DNA match finally came, for many survivors a 25-year statute of limitations blocked them from seeking prosecution.

Until the rape kit testing began, Jeanette Crabb never had DNA evidence against the man who had beaten and raped her in 1993.

“Mine had an immediate match,” Crabb said. “Unfortunately, it was three months past the statute of limitations.”

Prosecutors also spoke in support of Senate Bill 162 to get rid of not only the statute of limitations, but also the exemption that says rape is not a legally recognized charge between married people.

The Ohio Alliance to End Sexual Violence reports that for every 1,000 rapes, only 230 survivors report it, and just nine cases are referred for prosecution. Of those, only five lead to conviction because of the statute of limitations and other barriers to survivors.

The National Alliance to End Sexual Violence estimates rape costs the survivor more than $151,000 over a lifetime because of the impact on jobs and education, among other things.

Rosa Beltrè, the executive director of the Ohio Alliance to End Sexual Violence, testified before the committee. She said the trauma of rape and sexual abuse makes coming forward and presenting a case difficult.

“It may take 25 years or 75 years to get to a place where a survivor can decide to report, and we owe them the deference to make that decision when it is right for them,” Beltrè said.

Anna Cunningham was able to see herself through her experience, and help her daughter and son do the same. But she knows the mental weight it takes to cope with the trauma of abuse and rape.

“Everyone has a voice and we are all entitled to use it at any point of time in our life,” Cunningham said.

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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.