RAPE: Time limit to prosecute may be dropped in Ohio

Should rapists be prosecuted if they are not discovered until more than 20 years after the crime?

Two Ohio legislators are saying they should be and have introduced a bill in the Ohio Senate that would do away with a statute of limitations on rape cases.

The law, introduced by Senators Capri Cafaro, D-Hubbard, and Nina Turner, D-Cleveland, would do away with Ohio’s current 20-year statute of limitations. It’s a change many residents and public officials say they generally favor.

“I don’t think there should be a statute of limitations because of DNA,” said Marietta resident Donna Torbert, 40.

With the growth of a national DNA data bank and the revisiting of old rape cases, investigators have recently been able to link individuals to decades-old crimes, but sometimes the link comes a little too late.

So was the case with a recent indictment in Cuyahoga County. According to the Cleveland Plain Dealer, a March 6 indictment against 60-year-old Charles Steele was returned one day after the statute of limitations expired on the March 5, 1993 rape to which Steele was linked.

“The concept is one that is common sense to me,” said Ohio Rep. Andy Thompson, R-Marietta. “Oftentimes technology didn’t allow you to find who was the guilty party immediately and maybe with the option of time, victims can get a more just conclusion.”

But Thompson and many others cited concerns that a long time lapse would have an effect on some evidence.

“I’m generally supportive of the idea, but I would have some concern about whether evidence may degrade over time,” said Ohio Rep. Debbie Phillips, D-Albany.

Marietta resident David Ruppe, 63, echoed that concern.

“On the whole, I think the time limit probably shouldn’t expire, but gosh I can see the problem over time,” he said.

Witness testimony is less reliable 30 years after an event occurred, said Washington County Assistant Prosecutor Kevin Rings

While the change would give the state the ability to prosecute old cases based on DNA evidence, 20- or 30-year-old cases based solely on witness testimony could be problematic, he said.

“One of the reasons for having a statute of limitations is that witness recollections become questionable over time,” Rings said.

Prosecuting years-old rape cases has proven difficult in the past, he noted.

“You have witnesses who disappeared, witnesses who don’t remember, and the witnesses who do remember may not remember fully what happened,” Rings said.

While he acknowledged that concern, Ohio Sen. Lou Gentile, D-Steubenville, pointed to the recent Jerry Sandusky sex abuse scandal as an example of an old case with no DNA evidence.

Victims of the former Pennsylvania State University assistant football coach alleged sexual abuse stemming back to the 1970s, but no physical evidence was ever collected.

“But you have multiple victims coming forward to testify, corroborating each other’s statements,” pointed out Gentile.

While the law has some bipartisan support in the Ohio Senate, its advancement will be dependent upon the senate president and majority, he added.

The law would not be retroactive, meaning cases older than 20 years would fall under the old statute of limitations and therefore remain off-limits for prosecutors. However, cases that are 20 years old on the day the law goes into effect would cease to have a time limit.

Currently, the only crime with no statute of limitations in Ohio is murder.

If enacted, Ohio would become one of more than 20 states to have no statute of limitations for rape cases.

Most recently, in April, Kansas elected to do away with a statute of limitations on rape cases and rescinded its previous five-year limitation.

Neighboring states of Kentucky and West Virginia also have no statute of limitation on rape cases.

Marietta resident Donald Sander, 86, said he is comfortable with the current 20 year statute of limitations.

As to abolishing that time limit, “I think you should approach with caution,” said Sander. “If they can’t find somebody in 20 years, after that long of time it’s kind of iffy.”