Stopping the Clock on Rapists

Lis Wiehl

There is no statute of limitations for murder. Murder cases remain open until there is a conviction — even if that conviction happens decades after the crime. The same is true for first-degree arson, first-degree kidnapping and certain drug-related crimes — and for good reason. These crimes are so heinous that a perpetrator shouldn't escape punishment because more than five years have passed since the crime. But in many states, the same is not true for rape. Rape is among the gravest of crimes, one that traumatizes victims long after their physical injuries have disappeared, so how can we let a rapist escape justice just because they evade the system for five or more years?

One summer night, more than 33 years ago, Fletcher Worrell climbed into the bedroom of Kathleen Ham's New York City apartment. He put a bag over her head and raped her at knifepoint. It took 32 years to send Worrell to prison, and there's only one reason that he will spend up to 46 years behind bars — a technicality kept the case open. When Worrell tried to buy a gun in 2004, a police background check revealed an outstanding warrant from Ham's case. Worrell had skipped bail after his first rape trial resulted in a hung jury. When he tried to buy the gun in 2004, police matched his DNA to evidence in the rape trial and arrested him. Had it not been for the outstanding bail jumping charge, Worrell never would have been convicted or served time for raping Ham. The case would have been tossed for exceeding the state's five-year statute of limitations on rape.

"We would never let a murderer walk, just because they committed a crime five years ago," says Sonia Ossorio, president of the National Organization for Women in New York. "No one should get away with rape simply because time has passed."

Many lawmakers agree on the urgent need to eliminate the statute of limitations for felony sex crimes. But opponents, such as the New York State Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, say repealing the statute of limitations removes the drive to prosecute cases in a timely manner.

There has been some progress made — 20 states have already eliminated the statute of limitations for the equivalent of rape in the first degree. An additional nine states have statutes of limitations of 10 years or more. Now, New York has an opportunity to take a critical step forward. The state legislature has passed competing bills tackling this issue. After years of failed attempts, the assembly and state senate are finally on the verge of successfully passing a new law that repeals the state's five-year limit.

The assembly approved Bill 11283, which would eliminate the statute of limitations for rape, serious sexual assault and sexual abuse of a child for criminal and civil prosecutions. The senate passed Bill 5342, which would eliminate the statute of limitations in criminal cases, but keep it at five years for civil cases, in which a victim can sue her assailant for damages and win money.

But the civil limitation is a fly in the ointment to passage of the bill. Those who support repealing the civil statute of limitations say that eliminating the time deadline will help victims. "Many survivors are so traumatized that they cannot immediately report their crime," says Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver. "This legislation seeks to leave the window of opportunity open for any victim to seek justice in a time frame that is dictated by their needs."

Other lawmakers see extending the deadline for civil suits as a thinly-disguised attempt to line the pockets of trial lawyers. Majority Leader Joseph Bruno said that extending the time deadline is little more than a gift to trial lawyers, and State Senator Jeffrey Klein called the civil provision a "poison pill" designed to torpedo the bill's chances of passing.

In my opinion, we need to look at the facts: the Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that one woman is raped or sexually assaulted in the U.S. every 2.5 minutes, and one in six women have been the victims of rape or attempted rape. Yet, the New York State Division of Criminal Justice reports that "332 sex fiends fingered by DNA evidence will not be prosecuted because of New York's archaic statute of limitations on rape." And that's just one state!

We should stop contributing to the number of rapists going unpunished because of a time deadline. This is a fight that can be conquered one state at a time. In New York, the lawmakers should pass a bill eliminating the criminal statute of limitations for rape and loosening the deadline for filing civil claims against rapists. There is no reason to protect rapists from lawsuits or jail.

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Lis Wiehl joined FOX News Channel as a legal analyst in October 2001. She is currently an associate professor of law at the University of Washington School of Law. Wiehl received her undergraduate degree from Barnard College in 1983 and received her Master of Arts in Literature from the University of Queensland in 1985. In addition, she earned her Juris Doctor from Harvard Law School in 1987. To read the rest of Lis's bio, click here.