#MeToo Is Putting The Statute Of Limitations For Sex Crimes To The Test

Terry Mitchell posing for a portrait outside the Utah Supreme Court in Salt Lake City - Friday, May 11, 2018, photo (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

#MeToo Is Putting The Statute Of Limitations For Sex Crimes To The Test

A case before the Utah Supreme Court may lead the way forward in securing justice for survivors.

It’s been more than a year since the waves of allegations against Harvey Weinstein gathered and burst the dam of our collective ambivalence. In the months since, the flood of survivors has continued unabated, exposing perpetrators in every industry from politics to sports.

And with each fresh revelation, we continue to reel with shock. Our favorite celebrities, public figures we’ve idolized, journalists we’ve trusted, politicians we assumed were safe from scandal have all come under fire for sexual misconduct. Even for those who have been pressing on the injustices of the patriarchy, the rising tide of accusations has been overwhelming.

While we’re making strides supporting survivors, there are still the inevitable, malicious accusations and attacks. “She did it for the money,” or “They just want their fifteen minutes of fame.” But perhaps most troubling is the question about why victims take so long, sometimes even decades, to report abuse and assault. It’s a problem that deserves deeper inspection because it points towards a more significant issue. How should we handle these decade-old allegations and how do we move forward in the post #MeToo era?

Why Victims Wait To Come Forward

If you’re a survivor, you probably consider the answer to this question self-evident. Most cases of sexual harassment, abuse, and assault involve power dynamics. 93% of juvenile victims know their abuser, and many are threatened not to report the abuse, either explicitly or implicitly. In instances of workplace harassment, victims might face subtle jabs about career advancement or job loss if they don’t agree to stay silent. In situations of domestic abuse, threats and coercion can turn to violence.

Many survivors decide not to come forward for one simple reason: they don’t think they’ll be believed. Our patriarchal culture has a long and sordid history of victim blaming that has created silence and shame around sexual abuse and assault. While we’ve made some strides in addressing this behavior, sex crimes still have some of the lowest reporting rates and only a fraction result in incarceration.

The aftermath of abuse can leave a wide wake in terms of psychological trauma. In the weeks and months after an initial assault, victims are busy struggling to simply survive. Overwhelmed and in some cases, isolated and unable to share their experience, survivors develop anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), chronic insomnia, higher rates of eating disorders, suicide, and depression. Our healthcare system and cultural stigmas present unique challenges for those with mental health issues that can keep victims from getting the help they need.

In addition to a laundry list of emotional consequences of reporting sexual abuse, there are also the genuine personal and financial repercussions of pursuing prosecution. These crimes can take years to wind their way through the courts, requiring victims to invest significant amounts of time and money in legal maneuvers and fees.

For childhood victims of sexual abuse, these factors are compounded by an emotionally confusing landscape of impossible choices. Because the perpetrator is often a family member or trusted friend, reporting the crime carries the guilt of destroying familial relationships. And in many cases, children have been manipulated into protecting the perpetrator with their silence.

It can take years, sometimes decades, for survivors to feel comfortable coming forward. And when they do, they’ll face another daunting challenge. Statutes of limitations (SOL) for sex crimes like assault differ from state to state, with narrower windows for pursuing criminal charges versus civil lawsuits. In Alabama, felony sexual abuse has a SOL of three years, while Wyoming has no statute of limitations on criminal prosecution. What does justice look like in these cases and how do we ensure sexual predators aren’t in a position to continue abusing their power?

The Statute Of Limitations Explained

The statute of limitations is a set of laws that specify a window of time in which a crime can be prosecuted and is usually reflective of the severity of the crime. For instance, felony larceny can be prosecuted up to 10 years after the crime is committed, while murder typically has no statute of limitations. The idea is to design these laws to reflect the realities of the human memory and the passage of time that impact the successful prosecution of crimes. As a society, we’re willing to pursue heinous crimes like murder without restriction because they suggest the perpetrator is a risk to society no matter how long ago the crime was committed.

The window of time for prosecution of sex crimes is problematic. While sexual assault is considered a violent crime that leaves behind a lifetime of emotional consequences in its wake, we’ve struggled as a society to address those injuries in a court of law. Bill Cosby appears to have spent nearly four decades drugging and raping women, yet the vast majority of his crimes will never result in a criminal conviction.

Massachusetts was one of the first states to redefine the statute of limitations in the wake of the Catholic sex abuse scandal. Over a thousand victims came forward with allegations that spanned decades, revealing rampant, systematic sexual abuse perpetrated by priests and covered up by the church. In response, the Massachusetts legislature passed compassionate legislation allowing victims of childhood sexual abuse to pursue criminal charges without restriction and to seek damages in a civil court against perpetrators within 35 years of the occurrence of abuse.

As the #MeToo movement continues to gather steam, other states have begun to inspect their statute of limitations to determine if there’s more we can do to deter and punish those who commit sex crimes and the organizations that enable them.

The Mormon #MeToo Movement

If the past few months are any indication, the Mormon #MeToo movement is just getting started. National coverage about allegations that bishops within the LDS church discouraged Rob Porter’s victims from reporting domestic abuse set off a landslide of condemnation earlier this year. In the ensuing months, other victims of abuse came forward identify leaders of the community, the church, and even law enforcement who had committed or covered up sexual abuse and assault.

Utah’s efforts to widen the window of time for childhood victims to come forward predates the most recent #MeToo movement. In 2016, the Utah legislature passed a bill, HB 279, that removes the statute of limitations for child sex abuse victims and allows them to pursue civil lawsuits. But thus far, no one has put this new legislation to the test.

Until Terry Mitchell.

“I want more than a hashtag.”

Terry Mitchell’s story seems ripped right out of the headlines. She was a 15-year-old witness when her friends were shot and killed by Joseph Paul Franklin. Sprayed with shrapnel, Terry survived and went on to testify against Franklin. Roberts, a 27-year old lawyer sent by the DOJ, became the prosecutor for the trial. Terry alleges he also became her abuser.

Terry recalls that he groomed her for several weeks before and during the trial, isolating her from her family. She alleges that after the assaults, Roberts told her that if she disclosed the assaults to anyone, it would result in a mistrial and the man who murdered her friends would go free. Terry kept her silence for the better part of three decades until Franklin was executed. Roberts went on to become a famous federal judge in the DC district court system.

After Franklin’s execution, Roberts reached out to Terry in a seemingly simple gesture of commiseration. It dredged up decades-old memories and trauma, sending her carefully constructed life into a tailspin. She recorded a phone call in which Roberts admits having sex with Terry while she was a 16-year-old victim/witness and that evidence propelled her case forward.

“The flashbacks, cluster migraines that can last up to 28 days, cognitive difficulties and night terrors were so mentally and physically painful I considered suicide to be done with pain and relieve my family from the burden of caring for me. When I finally realized and accepted the memories, I was horrified and concerned there may be other victims or future victims. I couldn’t live with the idea that this predator would be allowed to keep doing what he did to me as a child.” – Terry Mitchell

After a long and difficult process of working with the Utah Attorney General’s office, Terry felt demeaned and discouraged. She and her lawyer, Rocky Anderson, believe the actions of the AG’s office compromised her case and allowed Roberts to retire early before being officially censured. Judge Roberts filed his paperwork for retirement the same day Terry Mitchell filed her lawsuit against him in civil court.

After a two-year prolonged legal battle, Terry is taking her case to the Utah Supreme Court. She’ll be testing the law that widened the statute of limitations for sex crimes and might allow her to pursue a civil case against Judge Roberts. The primary issue for the court is whether or not the law is intended to be retroactive and should apply in Terry’s case. As Terry says, “I want more than a hashtag. I want the possibility of civil justice for victims of child sex abuse.”

The Utah State legislature has granted her their support in a “friend of the court” brief. The co-sponsor of the bill and the original author have also attended the hearings and spoken in favor of the case proceeding. And now, Utah holds its breath and waits. Terry’s challenge means much more than just whether or not her case against one powerful man can proceed. It also signals for other Utah survivors of childhood abuse that justice through the courts is possible.

“It’s an honor and heartbreak at the same time. I’m honored to be the first in court to use this law to hold my privileged predator accountable civilly. He not only abused me, he derailed my future and my mental health.

It’s a heartbreak that my predator has been protected from accountability, like many abusers, by those who were supposed to protect victims. I strongly believe there should be no statute of limitations for victims of child sex abuse. Since abusers won’t be criminally accountable, the very least they could do is help the victim heal the life sentence of consequences stemming from the abuse of adult abusers in a position of power or authority.”- Terry Mitchell

“I’m hoping Utah decides to do the right thing.”

Roger Stephenson met his abuser when he was just 11 years old, an eager kid passionate about community theater. His drama teacher took a shine to him, and they were always together. After two years of hand-holding, hugging, and kissing Roger says his teacher sexually assaulted him backstage during a performance.

One of the most heart-wrenching parts of Roger’s story is that he did report the assault at the time to the staff at his middle school but was told by the principal that he’d misunderstood what happened.

“He told me that my abuser was just trying to show me he was proud of me and that I shouldn’t speak of it ever again or I would be responsible for his wife and children going hungry.” Roger Stephenson

After being admonished and threatened at school, Roger says he never told his parents. And the secret stayed buried in his childhood for more than 25 years until he ran into his abuser again and came to a horrifying realization. The teacher was still involved in community theater and had access to children. Stephenson went to the police, with a signed admission of guilt from his abuser in hand.

“I was met with disdain, confusion, disbelief and eventually a civil conspiracy to cover up the abuse again. I was refused a copy of my police report and the abusers son in law, who happened to be a sergeant at the police department squelched the investigation calling me a disturbed man looking to blame my poor excuse of a life on someone else.” – Roger Stephenson

Roger, who rallied on the steps of the Utah Supreme Court earlier this month in support of Terry Mitchell, hopes this case will open the doors for more Utah survivors like himself, looking for justice.

“It’s time to dispel the myths surrounding sexual abuse and trauma and that just because time has passed, doesn’t make the crime any less heinous, the criminal any more safe for society and the victim any less worthy of justice! If there is proof, there should be justice. Terry has a recorded admission, I have a signed admission, but because our abusers are both men in positions of power, they are not being held accountable.”

Although the likes of Larry Nassar, Bill Cosby, and soon, Harvey Weinstein, will face repercussions in our criminal justice system, the consequences still seem too few and the burden of costs too high for survivors. Just these three men alone are accused of abusing or assaulting over 410 women, some of them children at the time of the abuse. And in each instance, there are many others that aided and abetted these sexual predators and allowed them to go on committing these crimes for decades.

In the coming legislative sessions, states will need to tackle how to structure the statute of limitations to handle cases like these with compassion, especially for survivors of childhood sexual abuse. Even just a glimpse at the two Utah cases highlighted here shows a horrifying process that victimizes survivors, from schools to law enforcement to legal proceedings. And we’ll need to honestly inspect our own motivations in rushing to defend powerful men from these accusations. Every word of victim-blaming, every not-so-subtle question about the motives of the accuser, undermines survivors and continues the cycle of shame and abuse.

Stop asking why survivors don’t come forward sooner.

You know why.

If you or someone you love has experienced sexual abuse, harassment, or assault, you’re not alone. Learn more at RAINN and get the help you need and deserve.

News // #MeToo / Justice / News / Sexual Assault