The Statute of Limitations Exists For a Reason

December 21, 2011

Just read about the latest in the string of sex abuse stories that has surfaced in the wake of the Penn State controversy. This time its a sports writer from Philadelphia, Bill Conlin. Among the opening paragraphs, before the article gets to the details of the accusations is the following quote:

“We would love to see justice in this case,” Detective Stacie Lick of the Prosecutor’s Office wrote in an e-mail to one of the women last month. “So many people have been victimized by this man, but our hands are tied by the law, which does not let us prosecute.”

Later, we find this blurb:

By the time Blanchet and the others went to prosecutors themselves, “nothing could be done because of the stupid statute of limitations,” said Kevin Healey. “We wanted justice.”

Just so we’re clear, Bill Conlin sounds guilty. And all accusations of child abuse should be taken seriously. But should people who wait 30 years to report a crime be complaining about how the law didn’t protect them? Frankly, this is like somebody who blames the 911 operator for their house burning down, when they didn’t even own a phone in the first place.

But aside from my insensitivity, and my possibly unpopular opinion, let’s keep in mind an important detail: these cases are precisely the reason why the statute of limitations exists.

Thousands of crimes go unreported each year. Crimes against children are probably a high percentage of those crimes for the simple fact that the victims are not always capable of reporting the crimes. Thus, the statute of limitations takes this into consideration and usually (depending on location) allows a longer period of time for these victims.

But the Bernie Fine and Bill Conlin cases are not run-of-the-mill delays in reporting. These are cases involving locally-famous men whose stories are being publicized for the simple fact that they are well known and the Jerry Sandusky case is currently big news. Which means they aren’t your average, innocent-until-proven-guilty citizens. They will be lambasted in a very public way, essentially tried in the press and on the internet, long before their case could ever hope to get to a courtroom. Regardless of the outcome of their individual stories, their lives are ruined.

And since the evidence in these 20 and 30 year old cases is long gone, Fine and Conlin will have zero chance at ever proving their case. And while the prosecutor has the burden of proof, we all know in our hearts that it’s actually the high-profile defendant who has to demonstrate his/her innocence. Sure, we don’t sympathize with Fine or Conlin, but what about various high-profile defendants in the past who were found to be innocent? What about Richard Jewell or the McMartin family? What about the West Memphis Three? What chance did any of those people have if they had been accused of a crime 20 or 30 years after the fact?

But there’s also another angle to consider: if Fine or Conlin were just average, creepy old men living down the street from you, you wouldn’t even know that the were being accused of child molestation right now. You would continue allowing them to babysit your children because their alleged victims (and the victims’ families) didn’t think it was important to report the crimes until it became something they saw on TV.

If nothing else, the statute of limitations reminds us not to sit back and think too long about those crimes we’re not reporting. If you want justice, and you want to prevent other children from being abused, you don’t wait 30 days, much less 30 years, to report a crime. And if we choose not to, we don’t get to complain that the system didn’t work for us.