State senator to draft bill that eliminates statute of limitations in sex assault cases

  • State Sen. Martha Fuller Clark speaks to a Senate Committee during a hearing on Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2013 in Concord. (AP Photo/Jim Cole) Jim Cole

Monitor staff
Published: 9/15/2016 11:33:20 PM

A state senator is drafting a bill that would eliminate the time frame sexual assault victims have to pursue legal action against their attackers.

Martha Fuller Clark, a Portsmouth Democrat, plans to sponsor legislation in the 2017 session that would remove the six-year limitation in felony cases involving adult victims, according to a statement issued Thursday.

Fuller Clark clarified by phone that she is also looking to eliminate the time restriction in child sexual abuse cases, which is longer, but, she argues, still insufficient.

The current statute gives prosecutors 22 years from the child’s 18th birthday – so until age 40 – to file sexual assault charges. Those same victims have less time to file a civil lawsuit; the state statute gives child victims until age 30 to seek damages.

“The timing of these charges shouldn’t be arbitrary,” she said of the limitations period in criminal cases. “We don’t know when an individual who has been traumatized will feel comfortable coming forward.”

Fuller Clark referenced recent cases that have come to light at boarding schools throughout New England. She said communities are now learning about instances of sexual abuse from 20 or 30 years ago, and yet prosecutors can’t move forward with cases because the statutes of limitations have lapsed.

But if the law allowed them to proceed, they could have a case, she said. She explained that scientific advancements and DNA testing have made it so that the passage of time no longer presents the same obstacles as it once did to investigators.

“Our society has realized that the damage done by rape never truly goes away and this bill will give prosecutors the chance to prosecute winnable cases regardless of how long since the crimes were committed and provide victims the necessary (closure) they deserve,” Fuller Clark said in the statement.

Concord defense attorney Ted Lothstein said he understands the need to give children more time to report instances of sexual abuse. But, he noted, that doesn’t mean the limitations period should be thrown out altogether.

“It’s important to understand that a person can bring forward an allegation without any corroboration at all,” Lothstein said of sexual assault cases. “If you have a rule that there should be no statute of limitations at all, than a person should be able to defend themselves. There’s no way to defend yourself after a certain period of time.”

Fuller Clark said by phone that she plans to reach out to other legislators and stakeholders for their support of the bill, but has yet to do so because she is in the very preliminary stages of the effort. Fuller Clark said she welcomes all input as she moves forward.

Amanda Grady Sexton, public policy director for the New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, said the organization has been working hard to bring together a diverse group of stakeholders on this very issue.

She said the group hopes to eliminate the statute of limitations in all sexual assault cases, regardless of victims’ age or whether the case is civil or criminal.

“We hope to bring forward legislation in the 2018 session after engaging in a statewide public awareness campaign on the issues that sexual violence survivors face,” Grady Sexton said.

“We’re encouraged by elected officials who are working to join our efforts to have some of the strongest statutes in the nation,” she added.

Communities across the nation are addressing the question of whether to relax or eliminate existing statutes of limitations in sexual assault cases. The laws vary greatly from a couple of years to 15 years to no limitation period.

California was one of the most recent, in part, because of the high-profile case against Bill Cosby. Dozens of women have accused the stand-up comedian and actor of sexual abuse.


(Alyssa Dandrea can be reached at 369-3319, or on Twitter @_ADandrea.)

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