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Spotlight Report

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Court upholds statute of limitations on prosecution

By Lyle Denniston, Globe Correspondent, 6/27/2003

WASHINGTON -- A deeply divided Supreme Court, ruling in a case with potential impact on child abuse cases across the nation, decided that after the time for prosecuting a crime has run out, it is unconstitutional to pass a new law reviving the power to prosecute.

Basing its ruling on a 205-year-old precedent, the court split 5-4 as it clarified for the first time that the Constitution's ''ex post facto'' law applies to laws that reopen a filing period for charging a crime after an earlier deadline had passed.

The ruling did not deal with prosecuting crimes long after the actual incident occurred if a filing period -- or statute of limitations -- has never been interrupted or has been extended while it continues to run. The new ruling involved only retroactive application of a new filing period.

Terrie Light of the San Francisco-based Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests called the ruling ''a victory for child molesters and those who shelter them. The message to abusers is clear: `If you successfully conceal your crimes and run out the time clock, you're home free forever.' ''

William Donohue, president of the Catholic League, said that the implications for the Catholic Church, especially in California, are that ''the church will properly be safeguarded from steeple-chasing lawyers and their Johnny-come-lately clients.''

The court, in an opinion by Justice Stephen G. Breyer, nullified a 1994 California law giving prosecutors authority to bring new charges in child molestation cases where the charge-filing deadline already had expired. The law allowed such new charges if they were filed one year after an abuse victim reported an assault to police, no matter when the assault had occurred.

The law was aimed at cases where the victim had reached adulthood, and then reported an abuse incident to authorities.

The court's decision apparently ended the prosecutors' case against Marion Reynolds Stogner of Antioch, Calif., who was charged in 1998 with criminal sexual assaults on his two daughters, in one instance 43 years earlier, and another 31 years before. At the time those alleged incidents occurred, prosecutors had up to three years to bring charges; they did not do so.

The two daughters in 1998 told police about the assaults during an investigation of accusations of child sexual abuse by Stogner's two sons. That led to the new prosecution of their father, then 70 years old.

A California appeals court upheld the 1994 law allowing Stogner to be prosecuted, finding it did not violate the ex post facto provision of the Constitution. Stogner then appealed to the Supreme Court, winning by a narrow margin.

Breyer's majority opinion said the law ''authorized prosecution for criminal acts committed many years beforehand -- and where the original limitations period has expired -- as long as prosecution begins within a year of a victim's first complaint to the police.''

He said such a law falls into the definition of ex post facto that can be traced back to a 1798 ruling by the Supreme Court.

Allowing an extension of a prosecution period, after an earlier one has expired, allows ''legislatures to pick and choose when to act retroactively,'' Breyer said. That ''risks both arbitrary and potentially vindictive legislation.''

The majority opinion was supported by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sandra Day O'Connor, David H. Souter, and John Paul Stevens.

Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, in a dissenting opinion joined by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, said that ''when a child molester commits his offense, he is well aware the harm will plague the victim for a lifetime.''

He said the California law operated to show ''compassion and concern when the victim at last can find the strength, and know the necessity, to come forward.'' It is ''the victim's lasting hurt,'' not the accused person's reliance on a past filing limitation, that should count the most, Kennedy said.

This story ran on page A26 of the Boston Globe on 6/27/2003.
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