Sometimes the simplest sounding questions spark the most profound discussion.
What's our purpose on earth?
Why is the sky blue?
Why do we have a statute of limitations on sex crimes?
I mean, really, why give the criminal any break at all? By placing a limit on how far back the prosecutor can go to punish a sex predator aren't we telling countless victims that the justice system doesn't apply to them?
Experts in the medical and law enforcement fields will tell you the career sex offender has probably committed dozens of attacks over a long period of time before they're ever caught. An FBI profiler once told me the Bureau stopped a serial molester who was in his 90's. Imagine how many victims he'd left in his wake.
Let's say a career sex offender - maybe a priest, a teacher or a family member - routinely molests children and tricks them into staying silent for 10 years. (Statutes of Limitations vary from state to state.) When the offender is finally brought to trial the prosecution is often not allowed to tell the jury about their past pattern of bad behavior, not even if a dozen other people come forward to claim the defendant did the same thing to them. Too bad, the law says, it doesn't matter anymore.
That's a horrible thing to tell victims, that what happened to them doesn't matter, that no justice can be had by them.
I know a lot of people who work in the justice system so I called them to pose the question, "Why is there a statute of limitations on sex crimes?"
Mickey Sherman is a noted Connecticut based defense lawyer. "The system is designed to protect a defendant's rights. Every person has a right to be notified in a timely manner as to potential criminal charges against them," he told me. It's just not fair for someone to be able to say, 'Hey, 26 years ago last Tuesday this man raped me!'"
When I contacted Boston attorney Wendy Murphy, known nationally as an adamant victim's advocate, she offered a much more sinister assessment of the status quo.
"The way these silly rules work should make any decent person cringe because limitation periods mean a perp who raped 25 children can, as soon as the clock runs out, walk into the middle of main street and brag about his crimes - and there's nothing anyone can do about it."
Many others I contacted didn't want their names used. Most seemed puzzled when I asked if we could simply do away with the statute of limitations for sex crimes.
A federal prosecutor in New Mexico told me, "that's what the state legislature wants ... (they) determine what S.O.L. will apply to every crime."
A retired District Attorney from California said, "It doesn't have to be that way ... a state legislature could pass a law and change it. Maybe it is time to change some laws."
I also asked a sex crimes prosecutor who answered in an exasperated tone of voice, "Why is there a statute of limit on anything! I guess so the cases don't linger forever..." And he admitted how tough it is to prove a crime happened years earlier. Details get fuzzy, witnesses move away, evidence can get lost and defendants have the "right to a speedy trial."
I came away thinking the real answer as to why we allow this is because that's the way it has always been done ...
That's not to say that some adjustments haven't occurred. Some states now allow childhood victims 30 years to come forward, some wave the time limitation and start the clock anew if psychiatric treatment has helped a victim recover their memory of abuse or if DNA evidence from a current attack matches the DNA from a dormant case. Long ago law enforcement started collecting DNA samples from rape victims and now forensic matches in current cases are helping past victims find resolution. Finally, they are able to come face to face with the shadowy criminal who stole their dignity.
I like Wendy Murphy's suggestion. "Someone," she told me, "Needs to confront the head of the judiciary committee in (every) state legislature where the time limits are short and ask only one question: "Why do you want a child rapist to EVER stop looking over his shoulder, wondering if the cops have finally caught up with him?"
The truth: there is no constitutional right to have the clock stop running on a crime. The lawmakers in your state have simply failed to act.
There is no Statute of Limitations for murder or treason and I would submit sexual assault is just as life-damaging and heinous a crime. Let's demand we abolish this foolish statute.