What Happens When Your Rape Expires?

By Ijeoma Oluo

flickr/numb3r

EDITOR’S NOTE: On January 17, 2018, Hayat Norimine wrote a long-form piece for SeattleMet about Washington’s statute of limitations on sexual assault cases, including updates on efforts to change the parameters. For further context, we highly recommend giving it a read.

The allegations came to light the way they always seem to these days: on the internet. What for years had just been rumor was finally being posted in plain words. On Facebook and reddit, posts started showing up by women stating that Jamison Rogayan had sexually assaulted them. Once the posts started, other women came forward with similar stories: Rogayan, a well-known fixture and café owner in Bellingham, Washington — home to Western Washington University and little else — would find an excuse to get these women to his apartment, where he would sometimes drug them or ply them with alcohol and ultimately assault them. Within a few weeks of the first posts, seven women had accused Rogayan of assault.

The revelation that a man who seemingly everyone knew and many liked had been preying on women in this college town for at least six years was a shock to some, and not a shock at all to others. Some people commented on how nice and friendly he was, others on how he had always creeped them out. But the majority seemed relieved when he was quickly arrested on September 25, 2015, and charged with various counts of rape and assault.

But Rogayan is awaiting trial for the assaults of only four of the seven brave women who came forward. For the other three women, charges could not be filed. In Washington State, if victims report their rape within one year, they then have 10 years to file charges. But if they don’t report it within one year, they have just three years to file charges, meaning their rape has — for all legal purposes — expired.

In Bellingham, the college town where Rogayan has reportedly preyed on women for years, a WWU student could be raped her freshman year, and be legally unable to seek justice by the time she graduates. When studies show that 1 in 5 women will be sexually assaulted at college, the three-year limit has the potential to leave countless women without legal recourse — and can leave rapists free to rape again.

Rumors had also swirled quietly for years around Kevin Donovan, known as hip-hop pioneer Afrika Bambaataa. But those rumors became allegations on March 30 of this year, when former New York State Democratic Committee Member Ronald Savage announced over the radio that Bambaataa had sexually molested him for years when Savage was a child.

At first, the allegations were fiercely denied by the rest of the Universal Zulu Nation — the experimental and wildly influential hip-hop collective Bambaataa had formed over 40 years ago — as “lies” and “stories.” But after Savage had come forward, other men followed with similar stories of childhood abuse at the hands of Bambaataa, and accusations that Savage was trying to slander Bambaataa for publicity no longer held water.

When asked why he had come forward now, at age 50, more than 35 years after the alleged assaults, Savage answered that it was to draw attention to New York state’s statute of limitations on child sexual abuse, which had long guaranteed that Bambaataa would never pay for the abuse against Savage. In New York, minors who’ve been sexually abused only have until their 23rd birthday to report it, before the doors to justice close on them forever.

In the U.S., 34 states and Washington, D.C. have criminal statutes of limitations on rape, and even more have statutes of limitations on child sex abuse.

These statutes vary wildly by state. For rape, the limits range from as long as 20 years (in Ohio) to as few as three years (in multiple states, including Illinois, Minnesota, and Washington). Some states also allow for statute exemptions if a DNA match is made.

For child sex abuse, the statutes are murkier; some statutes stipulate the age by which a victim must come forward, some the amount of time that’s passed since the abuse occurred, some how many years have passed since the victim turned 18, and some a combination of factors. Connecticut, which gives victims 30 years from the date they reach maturity to report their rape, has one of the longest statutes; New York, which gives victims just five years after reaching maturity — or until the age of 23 — has the shortest.

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Florida’s statute provisions for child sex abuse provide one example of how complicated legal definitions can get. (Credit: National Conference of State Legislatures)

So why do these statutes exist? Why would we put a time limit on a victim’s right to justice? The truth is, most crimes (with the exception of murder in most states) have a statute of limitations. These are primarily due to the time-limited nature of memory, evidence, and testimony.

“The purpose of statutes of limitations are to protect the defendant,” explains Katie Tastrom Fenton, Esq. “After a period of time, a defendant may not have access to evidence to exonerate them, alibis may have died or become unavailable, etc.”

Another reason for statutes of limitations, Fenton explained, is rooted in a general distrust of victims who do not come forward in a timely manner. A third is the belief that an offender shouldn’t have to spend their entire lives in fear of prosecution.

These are all sound reasons for statutes of limitations if, say, your house were robbed, but they ignore the unique social and psychological factors that surround rape and sexual abuse. Rape is a chronically underreported crime — approximately two-thirds of sexual assaults go unreported. Child sex abuse is even more underreported, with less than 12% of child sex abuse reported to police. Sexual assault and abuse is underreported because sexual assault is one of the few crimes that victims are told by society to be ashamed of. Studies show that people are more likely to blame victims of sexual assault for their crimes than they are to blame victims of other crimes. Sexual assault is also one of the few crimes regularly perpetrated on those who may depend on their perpetrator for their physical and emotional safety, and even love. For some victims of sexual abuse, reporting their abuse at the time of the assault may risk their entire families, even their lives.

There are myriad reasons, then, for why a victim of sexual assault or abuse could wait years — even decades — to come forward. But when many are ready to come forward with what happened to them, they will find that it’s too late.

For me, and many others, this issue is personal.

I was 11 when I was sexually abused by an uncle. I didn’t want to believe that a person I loved would hurt me. I remember saying to myself over and over, “No, this isn’t happening, not with him.” A year later he was sent to prison for 12 years for the rape of another woman. I was relieved. I thought I could continue to love my favorite uncle from a distance and wouldn’t have to say anything about what had happened to me. As I got older, I told a few people what had happened, but I honestly thought I had “gotten over” it.

At the age of 22, I was assaulted by an ex-boyfriend. Like many victims of child sexual abuse, I made an easy target for later abuse. I didn’t even realize that what had happened to me was rape for many years. It was surely my fault for not asking for my key back when we broke up, my fault that he could get into my apartment. It was my fault for not fighting back harder. When I finally understood that it wasn’t my fault, that the man who had assaulted me was a violent predator, it was well past Washington State’s three-year statute of limitations.

I continued to think that I had healed from what had happened to me — until, in my mid-twenties, when my uncle was released from prison. Suddenly, the man who had abused me was at family gatherings, was asking to hold my children. I started having panic attacks, I stopped sleeping, I stopped leaving the house. I finally told my family what my uncle had done, mostly out of concern for my little sister’s safety. But I still did not report it to the police, in order to protect my grandparents, who were so happy to finally have their son home.

Now, I am past the age of 30 — and according to Washington State, the sexual abuse I endured as a child has “expired.” But the pain from that abuse certainly has not. My uncle has been in and out of jail since his initial release from prison over 10 years ago, but has not been arrested for a crime serious enough to give us more than a few months of peace at a time. He finally moved out of state seven years ago and I was able to avoid him except for the occasional mention in family conversations. The last time I had to face my uncle was at my grandfather’s funeral two years ago. I was shaken to the core as he poked a finger at my chest and called me a “bitch” and my mom a “cunt.” I realized then that he will never pay for what he has done, and I will only have peace from him when one of us passes away.

My story is, heartbreakingly, not at all original.

“I was 13, he was 18, and I didn’t have proper sex ed in school so I wasn’t sure if he would be guilty or if it was my fault, so I never went to the police,” explains Karina*. Now, as an adult, she still suffers from what was done to her and her inability to get closure. “I have PTSD and that incident led to a lot of sexual trauma in my teens that I’m only now forgiving myself and others for and healing over.”

“Jesus, I’m crying,” says Unbroken* as he talks about his childhood abuse.

For Unbroken, the shame and stigma kept him silent for years as well. At age eight, both he and his six-year-old brother suffered sexual abuse at the hands of a babysitter, but he suffered from the shame of the abuse for much longer.

“I hated myself for years for being unable to protect my little brother,” he explains. It wasn’t until his thirties that he was able to believe that the abuse wasn’t his fault. The effects on Unbroken and his brother have been lifelong: “We didn’t trust people. Him more than I. It took a long time to heal. At least well enough to be sociable.” He now advocates for victims of child sex abuse.

When survivors of sexual assault are given the time to process what happened to them and come forward when they are ready, seeing their attackers sentenced to prison for their crimes can help bring about crucial closure.

Oregon recently removed its statute of limitations on rape prosecutions. This allowed Jesse to seek justice for the years of sexual abuse he suffered at the hands of his stepfather, which began when he was only nine years old.

“He preyed on me for being a very good kid who did what he was told,” Jesse remembers. He kept quiet for many years out of fear. At first, he kept quiet because his stepfather warned him that if he told, it would make his mother angry. Then, Jesse kept quiet because he didn’t want to disrupt his family after so many years and didn’t want to open himself up to shame and ridicule.

“It’s no big deal . . . I’m strong enough to just live with this,” he told himself.

Jesse finally started talking about the abuse he suffered in his first year of college, when his girlfriend at the time disclosed to him that she had been raped. He still kept the abuse from his family, however — that is, until his nephew was born and he saw his stepfather holding the baby.

“I knew that if I didn’t do something, it would happen again.”

Reporting the rapes and abuse was a traumatic experience for Jesse, but one that was ultimately worth it. Jesse’s stepfather was eventually sentenced to 50 years in prison.

“The trial was awful, because he pled not guilty. I had to see him in court, glasses broken, beaten up. I know what happens to child molesters in prison. I still deal with a lot of guilt, because of that and because I know HE had a terrible childhood and he was my stepdad for 15 years and raised me,” Jesse explained.

“But knowing he isn’t out where he can hurt anyone else, and that I’m not lying to my family and to myself, is worth it,” Jesse adds. “It gave me a sense of closure, in a way. I know a lot of people don’t ever get that chance.”

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“New York is among the very worst states in America for how it treats victims of childhood sexual abuse. This is the year to change that deplorable situation,” said New York Assemblywoman Margaret Markey in hopes that this year will be the one in which New York decides to give victims of child sex abuse longer than the young age of 23 to report their abuse.

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New York assemblywoman Margaret Markey at a press conference for her Child Victims Act (Credit: New York State Assembly)

Many state Republicans, with the support of the New York State Conference of Catholic Bishops, have opposed attempts to raise or remove the current statute of limitations. In a country where up to 100,000 children may have been victims of sexual abuse at the hands of clergy, many in the church are afraid of the political and economic consequences of lifting the statute of limitations on child sexual abuse — especially the limitations on civil action. In New York alone, lobbyists for the New York bishops have spent over $1.8 million since 2007 fighting efforts to hold the church accountable for past child sex abuse. The church has spent over $5 million on lobbying efforts in Pennsylvania, where there are similar efforts underway to raise the statute of limitations on child sexual abuse cases.

It appears that the efforts of the Catholic Church to prevent the raising of the statutes of limitations have been working. Testimony from child advocates and victims of childhood sexual abuse, and the widespread news coverage of assault allegations against Afrika Bambaataa, did little to sway the New York state legislature on this issue. The state assembly has repeatedly passed bills raising the statute of limitations on child sexual abuse in recent years, but the state senate has yet to vote on one of them.

The most recent attempts at lifting the statute of limitations on child sexual abuse died in the state senate on May 23 without a vote. Governor Cuomo stated that he hoped that reform of child sexual abuse laws would pass by the end of the June 16 legislative session, but legislatures were unable to come to agreement in time for the deadline.

For now, the limit of 23 — the most stringent limit on child sexual abuse charges and lawsuits in the country — still stands, and countless children will be denied justice for the horrific crimes perpetrated on them.

Across the country, Washington state senator Pramila Jayapal tells me in a statement: “When I first began to look into this issue, I was shocked to find out how little time survivors in Washington are given to report an assault.”

In January 2016 to relatively little fanfare or press coverage, Jayapal sponsored a bill to try to address the three-year statute of limitations for reporting rape in that state. Her bill would raise the statute of limitations for reporting rape to six years, while also raising the age limit to report child sexual abuse from 23 to 30. But already, opposition from some Republicans in the legislature has taken a few important pieces of the proposed legislation off the table.

“The original bill would have removed all statutes of limitations on the prosecution of felony sex offenses, including rape and child molestation. However, in order to garner more support from my Republican colleagues, I had to reduce the scope of the bill by eliminating the statutes of limitation for all first degree felony sex offenses only, and expanding the statutes for third degree rape and all sex offenses involving minors,” Jayapal explained.

Even with these concessions, the legislature did not pass the bill this year. But Jayapal is determined to keep fighting:

“Having shortened statutes of limitations simply does not recognize the complexity of these cases and the emotional and societal burdens victims face in reporting these crimes. We must do everything possible to expand the ability for survivors to speak out, no matter how long it takes, in a manner that best serves them and gives them their best chance at justice. [ . . . ] I will continue to keep working to make this happen because rape and sexual assault must be of concern to both political parties.”

In the meantime, for those who’ve been raped, the three-year limit (one of the shortest in the country) stands.

“Anywhere I go to speak around the country, I find out what those rules [statutes of limitations] are. I tell them, ‘hey, if this is goin’ on, you’ve got to tell in the next four years.’ It is so underreported, it is just part of the big system. . . . They [victims] have no idea how much time they have. It should be taught in school — it should be part of the curriculum,” Mike Pistorino yells emphatically in a thick Bronx accent over the speakerphone to me. He’s in his car traveling to another speaking event. A survivor of childhood rape, he has dedicated his life to advocating for victims of sexual abuse and assault and to lifting statutes of limitations on sexual abuse and assault.

The current legal system, Mike argues, enables predators to prey on multiple children and young adults without fear of legal repercussions. When studies indicate that a large percentage of sexual assaults are committed by repeat offenders, any limits on prosecution of sexual assault puts people at risk of assault by someone who could have been locked away.

“It’s the perfect crime. They rape innocent little babies who aren’t gonna say somethin’. And by the time they do, they can’t do nothin’. It’s the perfect crime.”

Like many victims of sexual assault, Mike lived with a sentence far longer than his rapist would have. “I went onto 16 years of addiction. In jail 12 times. Homelessness, sadness, suicide attempts . . . before I started talking about this.”

“Only because of years of therapy am I this freakin’ ray of sunshine that I am now,” he adds with a small chuckle.

Mike has been working with lawmakers and activists across the country to raise statutes of limitations on rape and sexual abuse, giving speeches, hosting charity and awareness walks, participating in marches, and raising money for rape crisis centers.

At times the deck seems stacked against him. Rape and sexual assault are issues that many just don’t want to talk about, and while violent crime has decreased each year, rates of sexual assault have remained static since 2005. But there has been some progress. In 2010, Florida removed their criminal and civil statutes of limitations on child sexual abuse cases and in 2015, Nevada raised its statute of limitations on rape from four years to 20.

Other states have had their limitations for rape cases scrutinized because of one man: Bill Cosby. After dozens of women came forward with allegations of rape and sexual assault, many states where those charges were brought forth, including California and Pennsylvania, found themselves asking tough questions about why these women would be unable to seek justice for the crimes perpetrated against them.

Out of the dozens of accusations made against Cosby, he has only so far seen a small handful of criminal charges and there is a very real possibility that he will not see any jail time. In the midst of the media storm, many states scrambled to bring up bills that would prevent this from happening again. Earlier this year, for instance, five of the women who accused Cosby of sexual assault helped to introduce a bill in California that would “abolish all legal deadlines for rape, sodomy, lewd, or lascivious acts, continuous sexual abuse of a child, oral copulation and sexual penetration.”

But already, the momentum for statute of limitations reform appears to be fading.

Mike Pistorino hopes to keep pressure on these states long after the headlines about Cosby dim. For Mike, his work won’t be done until rapists know that they will never be safe from prosecution. And as he says, the reason to keep fighting is simple:

“Imagine if somebody raped your child, and they tell you in 20 years, do you want that guy to go to jail, or do you want that guy to get away with it?”

You can find the statute of limitations for rape in your state here. You can find the civil statute of limitations for child sex abuse here, and the criminal statute of limitations here. You can find contact information for your state legislature here.

*names have been changed to protect survivors

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