The scores of purported victims of comedian Bill Cosby’s alleged sexual assaults over the decades may or may not one day be vindicated, but lawmakers in California have eliminated one barrier to justice for sexual assault victims in the future. California has abolished the statute of limitations for rape and sexual assault charges. Governor Jerry Brown put his signature on the historic Justice for Victims Act, Senate Bill 813, at the end of September. The new statute, originally proposed by State Senator Connie Leyva of Chino, ends California’s ten-year statute of limitations for a broad set of sex-related crimes including rape and child molestation.
The bill received unanimous support in both the California Senate and the Assembly. The Justice for Victims Act and similar legislation in a number of other states is a response to the dozens of women who have accused Bill Cosby of sexual assaults going back to the 1970s. Cosby, who made a lengthy career out of family-friendly comedy, particularly his long-running NBC sitcom “The Cosby Show,” has consistently denied ever assaulting anyone and maintains that his sexual encounters were consensual. Most of the purported victims, however, cannot now even get a day in court because the statute of limitations for those crimes in those jurisdictions has expired.
WHAT DOES THE JUSTICE FOR VICTIMS ACT DO?
The Justice for Victims Act will not affect Bill Cosby, nor will it help his alleged victims. The new law goes into effect in 2017, and it is not retroactive. Under the U.S. Constitution, criminal charges cannot be brought retroactively. So precisely what does California’s Justice for Victims Act say and do? The statute permits “the prosecution of rape, sodomy, lewd or lascivious acts, continuous sexual abuse of a child, oral copulation, and sexual penetration, that are committed under certain circumstances, as specified, to be commenced at any time.”
After the Justice for Victims Act was signed into law, Senator Leyva issued a statement saying that the new law “tells every rape and sexual assault victim in California that they matter and that, regardless of when they are ready to come forward, they will always have an opportunity to seek justice in a court of law. Rapists should never be able to evade legal consequences simply because an arbitrary time limit has expired.” Attorney Gloria Allred, who represents several of Cosby’s accusers, said the new law “puts sexual predators on notice that the passage of time may no longer protect them from serious criminal consequences for their acts of sexual violence.”
Across the United States, statutes of limitations for bringing rape and sexual assault charges vary radically – from three years to thirty. Now including California, eighteen states have eliminated the statute of limitations for rape. Historically, statutes of limitations have been enacted by the states to protect those who are still presumed innocent from the monumental difficulty of mounting a criminal defense after the witnesses’ memories have faded and the physical evidence has deteriorated, disappeared, or become contaminated over a period of years.
WHY WAS THE JUSTICE FOR VICTIMS ACT OPPOSED?
Although the passage of the Justice for Victims Act is generally perceived as a progressive victory for women and women’s rights, some civil rights activists, public defenders, and defense lawyers opposed the legislation; an Orange County criminal defense attorney, for example, might be concerned that a longer statute of limitations will mean more false convictions. However, advocates of the Justice for Victims Act have said that it takes many rape and sexual assault victims years to deal with the crime and become finally able to press charges.
They also hope that removing the time limit will be a warning to sexual predators that rape and sexual assault will not go unpunished even if a victim fails to come forward at once. In June, three of Cosby’s alleged victims came forward and testified to the California Senate in favor of the new legislation: Victoria Valentino, an ex-Playboy model who met Cosby in 1969; Lili Bernard, an actress who knew Cosby in the 1990s; and a woman identified herself only as “Kacey,” who said that Bill Cosby sexually assaulted her about twenty years ago.
In Colorado, two other alleged victims of the actor and comedian – Heidi Thomas, 56, of Castle Rock, and Beth Ferrier, 57, of Denver – testified to extend Colorado’s statute of limitations in rape and sexual assault cases. Subsequent to their testimony, Colorado doubled its statute of limitations in those cases from ten to twenty years. Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper signed the bill in June. And last year, after testimony by another of Cosby’s accusers, the state of Nevada extended its statute of limitations in rape and sexual assault cases from four years to twenty. Comparable measures have been introduced in several other state legislatures.
WHAT IS BILL COSBY’S CURRENT LEGAL SITUATION?
Earlier this year, in a civil case filed in Los Angeles, Cosby was ordered to sit for a deposition for a lawsuit which alleges that he sexually abused Judy Huth at the Playboy Mansion in or around 1974, when Ms. Huth was 15 years old. Cosby is facing just one criminal charge, in Philadelphia. Late in September, according to Reuters, Ms. Huth’s attorney, Gloria Allred, said the criminal case against Cosby in Pennsylvania takes precedence over her client’s lawsuit.
Attorney Allred has asked the presiding judge in Ms. Huth’s civil suit to halt any further discovery in the lawsuit until the criminal case in Philadelphia can be resolved. Bill Cosby is charged in the state of Pennsylvania with drugging and sexually assaulting a former Temple University employee, Andrea Constand, at his home in 2004. Cosby has pleaded not guilty to the charge.
Rape is always a difficult crime to prosecute under any circumstances, and it is an equally difficult charge to defend against. Even if a rape suspect is represented by the savviest and most experienced Los Angeles or Orange County criminal defense attorney, far too many rape cases too often break down into “he said – she said” scenarios. In such proceedings, only the people actually involved will ever really know what really happened, and the best that the justice system can hope to do in such cases is to arrive at something approximating justice.