Roy Harper, a popular folk singer who performed with Pink Floyd, has been accused of multiple counts of statutory rape and indecent assault involving a 12-year-old girl and two girls under 14. His defense against these charges: “But those events occurred 40 years ago!”
Statutes of limitations (SOLs) are an important part of our legal system. Thanks to SOLs, you can’t be punished for a crime after a certain amount of time has passed. In effect, SOLs are a type of affirmative defense: “Yes I committed the crime, but the incident happened half a lifetime ago!”
As useful as SOLs are, they do not cover every type of crime or personal injury case. In particular, murder is not protected by a statute of limitations. Defendants cannot answer a murder charge with, “But I killed her 40 years ago!” That would be a ridiculous defense because murder is the most severe crime possible and the defendant could still pose a danger to society.
If SOLs are laughable in murder cases, why do they exist in rape cases? California, for instance, maintains a 10 year SOL for rape (with certain exceptions). In other words, if you commit rape in California and aren’t caught for 10 years, then you are forever free from the possibility of criminal charges.
Although Roy Harper has been charged in an English court, the case still raises interesting questions for Americans. For example, just last month, the governor of California vetoed a bill which would have extended the statute of limitations for victims of child molestation in civil cases.
Since rape is a crime about power, it is not uncommon for rape victims to not come forward until years after the crime is over. Rapists often tell their victims that no one will believe them even if they do come forward. Particularly in child molestation cases, the victim will believe the rapist. After all, the rapist is often a priest, coach, or respected member of society. Who would believe a little child over Jerry Sandusky or, possibly, Roy Harper?
Given that the claim, “But that occurred 40 years ago!” is an irrelevant defense in a murder case, I propose that the same logic should apply to rape cases. Perpetrators of rape should be held accountable for their actions despite the passage of time.