A Montgomery County judge ruled last week that there’s enough evidence for sexual assault charges against Bill Cosby to move toward trial. For now, they’re the only criminal charges the comedian faces — even though 58 women have said they experienced sexual violence at the hands of Cosby.
That’s because the statute of limitations has passed for most of the women, meaning authorities are unable to bring criminal charges because the cases happened too long ago.
But for future victims of sexual violence in Pennsylvania, that could change.
State Rep. Kevin Boyle, a Democrat from Northeast Philly, will this week introduce legislation that would eliminate the criminal statute of limitations for all victims of sexual violence in Pennsylvania, meaning a person who was sexually assaulted can at any time report to authorities what happened to them and from there, police and prosecutors can decide whether or not to bring charges.
Currently, victims have to report within 12 years of the alleged assault in order to have any hope of criminal charges being brought.
“The whole episode of Bill Cosby demonstrates the emotional trauma that so many women and men who are victims of sexual assault feel,” Boyle said, “and it takes them often a long time to come to terms with it.”
Current laws and how they’re changing
Forty-three states have statutes of limitations for sex crimes ranging from three to 12 years and, of those, 27 have exceptions if DNA evidence is introduced that would allow prosecutors to file charges, according to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network. In Pennsylvania, charges must be filed against a perpetrator within 12 years of any sex crime and that statute is extended for child victims.
There’s no statute of limitations on murder, and the Pennsylvania legislature appears to be heading toward stripping away the statute of limitations for criminal cases brought by people who were sexually assaulted as children — and extending it by 20 years for civil cases. The bill that’s partially opposed by the Catholic Church because it opens the door to dozens (if not hundreds) of lawsuits passed the PA House in April and its fate in the state Senate is uncertain.
Rep. Mark Rozzi, D-Berks, is the prime sponsor of the legislation and has said that he’d support eliminating the criminal statute of limitations for all victims of sex crimes, not just those who were children when the abuse occurred.
“But at this point,” he told NPR, “this is the compromise that we were able to work with.”
Efforts to strip away the statute of limitations, especially on the criminal side, have plenty of opponents.
The American Civil Liberties Union argues statutes of limitations serve an important purpose of ensuring that cases are investigated and tried before memories fade, witnesses die and physical evidence is tarnished. Others have said women who came forward after the statute of limitations had passed “waited too long for their day of reckoning.”
Boyle said giving prosecutors an unlimited amount of time to bring charges against someone accused of sexual violence isn’t unfair to the accused. Prosecutors don’t have to bring charges, and the accused will still have their days in court.
“Ultimately this doesn’t guarantee outcomes in our courts,” he said. “People who are accused of these cases would certainly have all their legal rights to defend themselves.”
Why advocates want to ditch the statute of limitations
The criminal charges Cosby faces are in connection with a 2004 incident at the comedian’s home just outside Philadelphia. Andrea Constand, a former Temple University employee, alleges Cosby drugged and sexually assaulted her in his home.
Montgomery County District Attorney Kevin Steele ran for election on the premise he would re-open the case against Cosby, and at the end of December, just before the 12-year statute of limitations was up, Steele’s office formally charged Cosby.
But Constand had actually reported the incident to authorities a year after it occurred — it just took another 11 years (and arguably incriminating civil depositions) for Cosby to be charged. For dozens of other women who said they were assaulted by Cosby, it took decades to come forward with their story.
Kristen Houser, spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape, said the group supports legislation that would get rid of the statute of limitations for all victims of sexual violence. She said it can take victims much longer than 12 years to report, and part of that is because of the emotional trauma that comes along with being sexually assaulted.
“There’s a general fear of reaction from the public, from family, from friends,” she said. “And frankly, some people may live in a culture or community or with a partner that would make it unsafe to report.”
She also slammed critics who claim women who have accused Cosby of sexual violence are out for money or are embellishing what happened to them, saying it’s not uncommon for victims of sexual violence to publicly come forward in waves after they see that others told their stories.
“The reality is this is a very serious and common problem in our culture, and more and more survivors are willing to stand up and publicly say, ‘me too,’ and how common and how pervasive it is,” she said. “It’s a watershed moment that our country is giving some space to hear them.”