Helping Rape Victims Get Justice, When All the Odds Are Stacked Against Them

In 34 states and Washington, DC, statutes of limitations on filing rape or sexual assault charges prevent victims from reporting their attackers after a certain number of years have passed. We talked to the women fighting these sexist, arbitrary, and...

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Oct 21 2015, 7:40pm

Photo Wikimedia Commons

Lili Bernard walked into a detective's office in Atlantic City, New Jersey, in April of this year. Tired of living in fear, she'd finally found the courage to tell authorities about her rape.

Afterwards, she wept profusely. "It was a purging," she said. "I had always thought that if I were to report to the police, I would be dead, but it was this bright sunny day and I was alive."

Bernard says she was drugged and raped by Bill Cosby while preparing to guest star on the eighth and final season of The Cosby Show in the early 90s. Cosby allegedly threatened to file a police report against her for false accusation and defamation if she ever told the cops about the rape. During the last conversation they had, he allegedly told her, "As far as I'm concerned, Bernard, you're dead. Do you hear me? You're dead, Bernard. You don't exist."

But despite presenting detectives with "compelling evidence" and the names and numbers of witnesses, Bernard was informed that the statute of limitations in New Jersey had passed and she had no case.

Read More: How to Date a Rape Survivor

Her story is all too common: While dozens of women have come forward with accusations against Bill Cosby, the disgraced comedian has been able to avoid any jail time because of sexist, arbitrary, and archaic state-specific restrictions that provide a limited window of time during which victims can pursue justice.

Now a group of women led by Ivy Bottini, founding member of one of the first chapters of the National Organization for Women, are pushing to extend—or abolish altogether—the statute of limitations in California; a victim must file rape or sexual assault charges within ten years, and the group wants to expand it to 30. Because the state is a bellwether for progressive legislation, a ruling there could have ramifications for rape and sexual assault victims across the country.

"The only other crime they don't have a statute of limitations for is murder, and I don't see the difference between killing someone outright and killing a woman's future and psyche and life," Bottini told me. "You don't have to die physically in order to be dead."

Rapists count on women to not report because they are too embarrassed or ashamed to talk about what's happened to them.

Bottini says that Law and Order: SVU inspired her to change the law. "It was not your usual, activist way of thinking up something," she explained to me. "I was watching an episode that had to do with rape and sexual assault, naturally, and when it was over, I was just plain angry. I guess Cosby sort of fit into it, too, because of him not being able to be prosecuted, and I thought, That's crazy. Why is there a statute of limitations?"

Bottini, who lives in Los Angeles, contacted her friend Caroline Heldman, a professor of political science at Occidental College, and they convened the first ever meeting of EndRapeSOL, which stands for Ending Rape Statute of Limitations (they might try to change the name in the future, a member told me). The group had their first meeting at the West Hollywood Library in September, and the mood, according to Bottini, was "electric."

"Several survivors in the Cosby situation came and someone from the local NOW chapter. Quite a handful of SAG members, too, believe it or not," she said.

You don't have to die physically in order to be dead.

In the United States, 34 states and Washington, DC, have statutes of limitations for rape or sexual assault charges, but time frames vary dramatically. In New Hampshire, victims have six years to report; in Ohio, they have 20. New Jersey abolished the statute of limitations for rape in 1996 and made the law retroactive to five years before that date, but because Bernard's rape happened in 1990, just a few months shy of the retroactive period, she had no case.

Those who favor keeping statutes say that as time passes, evidence deteriorates, witnesses' memories degrade, and holding a fair trial becomes increasingly difficult. But Bottini isn't asking for automatic convictions; she just wants victims to have their fair day in court. She points out that statutes create yet another hurdle for those who want to report their rapes.

"Rapists count on women to not report because they are too embarrassed or ashamed to talk about what's happened to them," Bottini said. "The justice system relies on women's privacy and embarrassment when it comes to being attacked sexually, knowing that most women will not report."

This law damages us because I sit here and have to deal with these overwhelming feelings of injustice.

Why do we have these laws in the first place? According to Jordan Michael Smith, a reporter for Mother Jones, the idea behind imposing short windows for rape cases is rooted in English common law, which sounds like some cruel joke. "Under the doctrine of the 'fresh complaint rule,' rape victims were obligated to raise a 'hue and cry' immediately after being attacked; waiting too long to lodge a complaint would invalidate the charge," Smith writes. "As influential 17th-century British jurist Sir Matthew Hale argued, 'the party ravished' must promptly pursue justice; 'otherwise it carries a presumption that her suit is but malicious and feigned.'" In other words: If victims didn't immediately report their rapes, they were considered liars.

Today, Heldman believes the statutes exist to save the state money, pure and simple. "Politicians won't admit this, but it's a way to mitigate costs," she told me. Because the financial aspect means so much to politicians, Heldman is putting together a cost analysis as part of the group's proposal to end the statute, tabulating how much it has cost to bring cases to trial in states where the statute has been lengthened. The group is also gearing up for a fight against the Catholic Church, which has fought efforts to extend the statute in other states.

The good news is that when lawmakers are made aware that these time limits exist, change can come swiftly. Lise-Lotte Lublin, also a Cosby survivor, and her husband, Benjamin, successfully extended the statute of limitations in Nevada from four years to 20 in May of this year—the first extension of a statute in the US since the allegations against Cosby started gaining momentum around six months ago.

Read More: Should All Rapists Go to Prison?

"I literally YouTubed 'how to change a law' and started calling senators," Benjamin, who works as a bus driver, told me. Neither of them wanted to mention Bill Cosby to politicians, reasoning that his name would sully their campaign. They also didn't want to get death threats. "At that time, there was a lot of hatred and backlash against the women who were speaking out against Bill Cosby, and we thought it would generate negative publicity."

When their bill made it to the state's senate floor, Lise-Lotte said the politicians were shocked that it even existed. "They asked why it was four years to begin with. Several people on the board were dumbfounded," Lise-Lotte said. They voted unanimously to extend it to 20 years, though she had hoped to abolish it completely.

She doesn't understand why politicians would want to make it harder for police to hunt down serial rapists. "They [the state] need to build cases against serial rapists, and that in itself was such a powerful reason to extend it. Why would you tell the police: We don't want you to investigate anything beyond four years? It just made no sense."

I don't see the difference between killing someone outright and killing a woman's future and psyche and life.

The extension the Lublins fought for isn't retroactive—it won't help her put Cosby in jail—but it will help future generations in Nevada put rapists behind bars.

"This law damages us because I sit here and have to deal with these overwhelming feelings of injustice. I'm a hardworking member of society who pays taxes, but the state isn't going to help me in this situation."

She says just thinking about the law makes her feel hopeless all over again. "Every time this comes up and I'm powerless to do anything about it, I feel victimized again. I have more trouble with the law than with the assault because I don't have a clear memory of what exactly he did to me. I have trouble with the fact that I can't pursue him. I should have the right to pull him into a court so the jury can decide."

Abolishing the statute has become a common goal among the Cosby victims, who view it as a partial antidote to their trauma and a way to ensure future generations won't have to face the same injustice. On Facebook, Lise-Lotte and Ben are working with other Cosby survivors to speak out. "We told them, you've gotta find something bigger than you."