It’s been said that one good conversation can shift the direction of change. The recent investigation into OSU’s former doctor, Richard Strauss, has sparked a statewide conversation about the statute of limitations for rape cases.
To understand the discussion and the potential changes it could bring, we must start with the basics. What does “statute of limitations” mean? Simply put, this is the timeframe in which a criminal charge can be brought forth. Not so simple is determining when the clock starts and the deadline ends.
What if no one knows about the crime for many years? What if a child told an adult who didn’t tell anyone? Both good questions, and the answers impact when the clock starts in determining the statute of limitations.
There are some legal guidelines in place to help with the determination. Generally speaking, the statute of limitations for most felony crimes is six years. For most misdemeanor crimes, it’s two years. This means that the State of Ohio must file a criminal charge or indictment within those timeframes.
In the case of rape, current law mandates it must be charged within 25 years of the alleged crime. Why, you may ask, is there a limit on when rape charges can be pursued? You are not alone in this question. It is, in fact, the question at the center of the current statewide discussion.
I am encouraged that Ohio is talking about the statute of limitations for rape. This is a discussion that is long overdue. Rape is a horrific crime. It can happen to anyone at any age. It causes physical and psychological harm, and its consequences can affect victims and their families for a lifetime. In addition to that, and integral to the current conversation, there are many reasons why victims may not come forward right away.
Delayed disclosure in reporting rape is not unusual. The reasons for this vary and are complex. Consider the age of the victim. Is the victim a child? Do they understand the action is a crime? Is the perpetrator a loved one that they don’t want to get in trouble? Does the child feel like they did something wrong? Is the child protecting siblings by staying quiet? In the case of adults, are they afraid of the rapist? Are they able to face the crime by talking about it? Are they embarrassed? The list of potential questions goes on and on, and varies by victim. For example, in the case of the OSU athletes, they may have wondered if they would face unwanted media attention or scrutiny upon reporting. Whatever the concern, does it mean these athletes or any victim of rape should be barred from justice later? No.
We, as prosecutors, should be able to pursue charges once a rape victim has the strength to come forward. Regardless if it is five minutes, five years, or 30 years later, and regardless if the victim was a child or adult, it is our duty to pursue justice.
Removing the statute of limitations for rape will not change the burden of proof for the State of Ohio. Prosecutors must still have credible evidence to pursue a charge. The current discussion surrounding the statute of limitations is an important one, not only in terms of prosecuting the crime, but also for the well-being of victims.
According to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN), a person is sexually assaulted every 92 seconds, and the government responds to allegations of child sexual assault every nine minutes. The statistics are alarming, and every victim is different. Some report right away. Some don’t. Regardless of how victims respond or how long it takes for them to report, they deserve justice.
If you are a victim of sexual assault or need to talk to someone, we have local resources in place to help. You can reach our Victim Services Unit by calling (740) 833-2710, or HelpLine’s 24-hour crisis response line at (740) 369-3316.
Melissa A. Schiffel is Delaware County prosecutor.