bill cosby beverly johnson

Should There Be a Statute of Limitations for Sexual Crimes?

Attorney John Burns says the current system denies both accusers and the accused the right to justice

by John Burns, January 28, 2015

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bill cosby beverly johnson

(left) Bill Cosby and Beverly Johnson

Nobody wants to live in a world where Bill Cosby, America’s once-beloved television father, is a sexual predator. Perhaps, that is why this matter weighs so much on our moral conscience.  Within the last few months, over two-dozen women have come forward leveraging similar allegations of sexual misconduct against Mr. Cosby.  But despite the similarities in their accounts and the seriousness of their allegations, most of these women will never have the opportunity to criminally pursue their claims because the law, by virtue of the statute of limitations, prevents any such claims from moving forward at this point.  

By and large, every crime and every private cause of action has a statute of limitations (essentially a deadline by which a criminal case or lawsuit must be brought).  Statutes of limitation were enacted because legislators and judicial officials thought that certain evidence would either be stale or non-existent, witnesses would be hard to locate and memories would fade after the passage of time. Advancements in DNA analysis have negated this old adage. Individuals wrongly convicted are now being exonerated at astounding rates and prosecutors are equipped with critical evidence to bring cases that were once improbable, if not impossible. 



In enacting time bars to file actions, lawmakers were also of the mindset that it is important to allow people to move on with their lives and not be confronted with a potential prosecution many years later.  Not every crime is time barred.  For instance, there is no statute of limitations for murder (or its civil equivalent, a claim for “wrongful death”) because no one thinks the passage of time should shield killers from answering for their crime. Somewhat counter-intuitively, rape and sexual assault are not excepted from criminal or civil statutes of limitation despite our moral beliefs that victims of sexual assault or rape should never be restricted from coming forward and pursuing their rights. 

Victims of sexual offenses are highly unlikely to report a crime—with 68% being left unreported—and those who do report are delayed in reporting because they are overcome with an array of emotions.  If you speak with any victim of a sexual offense, they will tell you that the victimization never ends and they are tormented with a lifetime of pain.  To have laws in place that are designed to provide an alleged perpetrator with peace of mind while their victim is forced to live with the pain of such exploits runs afoul of our collective Moral Code. 

In administering justice, the media and the world of public opinion have demonized this cultural icon while simultaneously questioning the motives and credibility of the accusers.  And while Mr. Cosby still has supporters rallying to his side (Malcom-Jamal Warner recently came forward citing Cosby as a mentor and friend, as did Phylicia Rashad before him), he has incurred significant professional repercussions as a result of these allegations.  He has lost contracts with NBC and Netflix and had to cancel several comedy shows. 

The 24 hour news cycle, social media and the public stratosphere is the wrong place to adjudicate these alleged offenses.  It is not fair to the alleged victims or to Mr. Cosby himself. Guilty or innocent, Mr. Cosby’s life will be forever impacted by allegations that will never be legally resolved.  Similarly, these women could have suffered unspeakable tragedy but it appears their only source of vindication will come in the form of a primetime news special. Is there any justice in this? 

Something must change. The statute of limitation bars, especially with respect to sexual offenses, not only provides a complete disservice to the alleged victims but if this case is any indicator; alleged perpetrators also suffer at the hands of these restrictions–something that may not trouble us when the person in question seems so obviously guilty, but what happens when that isn't the case? It's time for our legal system to catch up to modern society and allow both accusers and the accused their day in court, without the limitations. 





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