U.S. Supreme Court to Review Molestation Ruling
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SAN FRANCISCO -- The nation's newspapers are filled with reports of baby sitters, coaches, educators and priests accused of sexually assaulting minors decades ago. Most such allegations come in lawsuits seeking monetary damages, partly because the cases are so old they can't be criminally prosecuted.
Except in California, where a 1994 law retroactively repealed the statute of limitations in child-molestation cases. The change ensnared hundreds of molesters convicted on decades-old allegations even though the legal deadline to bring the cases passed long ago.
On March 31, the U.S. Supreme Court is set to hear a constitutional challenge to the California law, brought by an elderly Contra Costa County man, Marion Stogner, accused of molesting two girls nearly 50 years ago.
Defense attorneys said Stogner and the others like him cannot be prosecuted under California's law because the U.S. Constitution prohibits bringing criminal cases where the statute of limitations -- the legal deadline to bring a case -- has expired.
The case has sweeping ramifications. The Bush administration has urged the court to uphold the law out of concern that a ruling absolving Stogner may weaken some provisions of the USA Patriot Act, which retroactively withdrew statutes of limitations in terrorism cases involving hijackings, kidnappings, utility bombings and biological weapons.
The Justice Department also has asked Congress to adopt rules retroactively nullifying statutes of limitations on child abduction, child molestation and federal cases involving DNA evidence.
"The decision in this case could affect the constitutionality of a recent act of Congress and constrict Congress' authority to enact similar legislation," Justice Department attorney John De Pue wrote the justices.
The justices have never ruled that states may prosecute someone after the original statute of limitation for the crime ran out, according to the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.
A bedrock principle of American law, these statutes protect the accused from the consequences of charges grown stale with age, conceived from unreliable memories or based on lost or dead witnesses.
If the justices rule against Stogner, other states may follow California's lead and rewrite child molestation and other criminal laws to rejuvenate long expired cases.
"We certainly fear that this would open the door for other states," said Jeffrey Fisher, an attorney with the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.
State legislatures began increasing the statutes of limitations for new molestation crimes in the 1990s, as research showed young victims often delay reporting sexual abuse because they are easily manipulated by offenders, are traumatized or have difficulty remembering.
California took the biggest step, allowing prosecutors to pursue "significant" molestation cases no matter how old, as long as there is evidence beyond the victim's word. Charges must be filed within a year after the victims -- in many cases now fully grown adults -- finally file a police report.
Stogner allegedly committed his crimes between 1955 and 1964 -- a time when the statute of limitations required filing charges within three years. The allegations didn't surface until a generation later, when Stogner's two sons were convicted of molesting children.
The list of cases like Stogner's grows daily. Among them:
-- Donald Kimball, a Roman Catholic priest from Santa Rosa, convicted last year of molesting a girl two decades ago.
-- Mike Phelps, California's winningest high school basketball coach at Bishop O'Dowd High in Oakland, accused this year of molesting a boy four decades ago.
-- Boyd and Mary Humphrey, a couple from Coarsegold, north of Fresno, convicted this year of molesting three children, now adults, they baby-sat decades ago.
-- Harold Sowers, of the San Diego suburb of El Cajon, sentenced last year for molesting a neighborhood boy a dozen years ago.
Los Angeles defense attorney Don Steier, who is representing a dozen California priests facing criminal charges in old molestations, said defending against such charges is exceedingly difficult. "How am I supposed to defend these cases or find witnesses that can recall that far back in time?" Steier asked.
His cases, like Stogner's prosecution, are on hold pending the high court's decision.
In upholding California's molestation law, the state Supreme Court ruled in 1999 that retroactively extending statutes of limitations was constitutional because lawmakers neither changed the definition of molestation nor altered the maximum eight-year prison term for each count.
"Victims individually, and society as a whole, are entitled to see the perpetrators of child sexual abuse found accountable and punished," said California Deputy Attorney General Janet Gaard.
The Supreme Court has allowed retroactive extensions of statutes of limitations in non-criminal cases.
In April, for example, the justices declined to block a California law allowing property owners to reopen insurance claims stemming from the 1994 Northridge earthquake. By law, homeowners had to file earthquake claims within a year, but the California Legislature reopened the window amid allegations the insurance industry undervalued the damage.
But this is the first time the justices have been asked to decide whether such retroactive changes can apply in criminal court, where prosecutors must satisfy higher standards of evidence.
"You can't change the rules in the middle of the game," insists Elisa Stewart, Stogner's attorney.
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