A bill passed in the State House of Representatives last year offers some hope for people who were sexually assaulted years ago and want to see the ones who harmed them prosecuted. But that hope faces some difficult challenges in the Senate.
House Bill 1155 would eliminate the statute of limitations for the most serious rape and sexual assault offenses. According to the National Center for Victims of Crime, eight states did not have any statute of limitations for prosecuting felony sexual assault as of 2013.
The Law and Justice Committee in the Senate is the next step for the bill. But committee chair Sen. Jamie Pedersen (D-Seattle), who has discretion on what legislation the committee hears, stated that he would not hear this bill.
“Human beings deserve to go on with their lives,” he said. “We have statutes of limitation in every area of the law with the exception of murder. I think that special status is appropriate in cases of murder.”
“The pain and hurt of these crimes don’t go away,” said Rep. Dan Griffey (R-Shelton), the bill’s prime sponsor. “They are life long sentences.”
Pedersen argues that there are many other crimes that can ruin a life including drunk driving and arson. The statute of limitations, he said, is a necessary element of the law.
“I don’t know how you can say somebody shouldn’t have to worry for the rest of their lives if they committed one of those crimes,” Griffey said.
After meeting with sexual assault survivors groups, the Washington Prosecutors Association, Sen. Ann Rivers (R-Lewisville), and Rep. Tina Orwall (D-Kent), Griffey said he is trying to come to a compromise.
Pedersen said he was open to negotiation, but stands by his position on keeping some sort of statute of limitations.
“I’m certainly open to looking at lengthening the statute, although I think we have a pretty long time after someone reaches the age of majority where the crime can be prosecuted.”
Meanwhile, Griffey said that Pedersen has turned down his requests for a one-on-one discussion.
The current law holds that a rape victim under 18 years old has until their 30th birthday to press charges. Someone more than 18 years old has 10 years to begin prosecution if the crime was reported within one year, and only three years to begin prosecution if the crime was not reported within one year.
Tom McBride, executive secretary for the Washington Association for Prosecuting Attorneys, cautions that old cases are extremely hard to prove. Investigators can sometimes discover new evidence, but even when someone has DNA or recorded evidence against their attacker, there is nothing an attorney can do if they seek prosecution after the statute of limitations period has expired. Often prosecutors will not take cases that are more than 10 years old because evidence may be lost or contaminated, recollections fade, and it’s hard to convince a jury of guilt beyond reasonable doubt.
Because of these difficulties, the Washington Association for Prosecuting Attorneys opposed the bill in 2016. But now the organization’s position has changed. With advances in DNA technology like sexual assault kits, recorded video, and photograph evidence, McBride said he is slightly more optimistic that an old case has a chance of success. A bill passed last year, HB 1109, allows local law enforcement to investigate new evidence found in previously untested sexual assault kits, essentially looking into cold cases.
Griffey said he started working on the HB 1155 during his first year in session in part because of his personal connection to the issue. Dinah Griffey, the senator’s wife, gave an emotional testimony last year at the bill’s public hearing in the House saying she was sexually assaulted when she was a child.
“I’ll keep coming if you don’t pass it,” Dinah Griffey said at the bill’s hearing in January 2017.
Representative Griffey agrees with his wife’s unrelenting approach. He said if the bill doesn’t get a Senate hearing this year, he plans to re-introduce the bill as long as he has a place in the legislature.
Christina-Marie Wright, an assault survivor who testified for the bill in 2016 and 2017, said about 85 percent of sexual assault survivors know their attacker or abuser. This makes it especially difficult for children to come forward until they are much older, when the statute of limitations blocks them from seeking prosecution.
“We need the opportunity for justice no matter how long it takes us for us to find our voice,” Wright said.
This report was produced by the Olympia bureau of the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association.