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Inspired by Bill Cosby, California Drops Statute of Limitations on Rape Cases

"I think we're in a moment where the world is finally valuing and paying attention to the voices and experiences of survivors of sexual assault."

Kimberly Lawson

Kimberly Lawson

Photo by Gilbert Carrasquillo via Getty Images

California Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill on Wednesday that effectively eliminates the statute of limitations when it comes to rape, child molestation, and other sex crimes. SB 813, dubbed the Justice for Victims Act, goes into effect January 1, 2017.

The new law, authored by Democratic Sen. Connie M. Leyva, will "allow the prosecution of rape, sodomy, lewd or lascivious acts, continuous sexual abuse of a child, oral copulation, and sexual penetration, that are committed under certain circumstances, as specified, to be commenced at any time."

Previously, the timeframe to prosecute these crimes had to be within ten years for most cases. California is now the 17th state to remove the statute of limitations on crimes of sexual assault.

According to the LA Times, SB 813 was partially inspired by the slew of accusations from women stating that comedian Bill Cosby drugged and raped them. Some of those alleged incidents took place as far back as the 60s. Because of the statute of limitations, many of those women, represented by California lawyer Gloria Allred, could not pursue charges.

The passage of this new law means that the courthouse doors will no longer be slammed shut in the face of rape victims.

Allred and her clients testified before state lawmakers in support of the Justice for Victims Act. "The passage of this new law means that the courthouse doors will no longer be slammed shut in the face of rape victims," Allred said in a statement. "It puts sexual predators on notice that the passage of time may no longer protect them from serious criminal consequences for their acts of sexual violence."

Despite earning unanimous bipartisan support in both the California Senate and Assembly, the bill was opposed by the American Civil Liberties Union. "The statute of limitations is there for a reason," Natasha Minsker, director of the ACLU of California Center for Advocacy and Policy, told the LA Times. "When a case is prosecuted literally decades after the event, it becomes much more ... difficult to prove that you are wrongfully accused."

Read more: Activists Protest Garbage Rape Limitation Laws on Bill Cosby's Walk of Fame Star

Betsy Butler is the executive director of the California Women's Law Center, which co-sponsored the bill. She says this isn't the first time they've addressed this issue. In fact, similar legislation has been shot down in the past.

Butler attributes SB 813's passing to the fact that there have been so many more conversations about rape culture and sexual assault in California and nationwide lately. She also thinks what ultimately impacted lawmakers were the testimonies shared by survivors. There have been so many "heartbreaking stories of victims who have not had a voice," Butler tells Broadly. "Allowing them to come forward and talk about how they've been disadvantaged in bringing justice forward has been really inspiring and motivational."

One survivor of sexual assault who advocated for SB 813 is Kamilah Willingham. Willingham was studying at Harvard Law School when she and another woman were allegedly assaulted by a fellow student in 2011 while they were incapacitated. Her story was highlighted in the campus rape documentary The Hunting Ground, and subsequently picked apart by media and a group of Harvard professors.

Willingham says that as a survivor, she now has "renewed hope in legislative reform, and the idea that legislative reform will eventually create a justice system that is safe for survivors."

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"As a victim who went through the criminal justice system with my own assailant," Willingham tells Broadly, "those attitudes—this idea that women lie and scheme when it comes to reporting rape—really are alive and well. There's so much paranoia about how victims can't be trusted and what we say about rape can't be trusted."

Willingham worked at the California Women's Law Center when the first draft of SB 813 was submitted to legislators. "It was pretty exciting to be a part of this process," she says, "especially because it was something that so many people thought would never happen."

"I think we're in a moment where the world is finally valuing and paying attention to the voices and experiences of survivors of sexual assault."