How a Hollywood scandal is changing rape laws around the country

Allegations against comedian Bill Cosby have led three states to extend or lift the statute of limitations for rape filings. 

Matt Rourke/AP
Bill Cosby arrives for a pretrial hearing in his sexual assault case at the courthouse in Norristown, Pa., Sept. 6, 2016. Allegations by women who said they were raped by Mr. Cosby led to a new California law that lifts the statute of limitations on rape cases.

California is the latest state to amend its statute of limitations on filing rape charges, as lawmakers were moved by the stories of dozens of women who claimed that entertainer Bill Cosby sexually assaulted them more than a decade ago.

Mr. Cosby has long denied the charges, either directly or through his attorneys. 

Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation Wednesday that lifted the statute of limitations, allowing rape victims to seek charges at any time. The legislature unanimously passed the bill after it heard testimony from the alleged victims of Cosby. Last year, Nevada also extended its statute of limitations for the crime from four years to 20 years, after it too heard testimony from one Cosby accuser. In June, Colorado doubled the time limit from 10 years to 20, also because it was moved by allegations against the comedian.

The measures mark a shift in attitudes towards rape in response to the dozens of women that came forward against Cosby years later. The laws recognize a majority of victims don't immediately report they were sexually assaulted.

But opponents, including public defenders and civil libertarians, worry the California law could increase the number of wrongful convictions, according to the Sacramento Bee. Evidence, they say, disappears, and memories fade. While supporters and opponents want justice to be served, the question is how to make it fair to the defendant and the victim. 

The California law, which becomes effective Jan. 1, 2017, will end the state’s 10-year limit for a victim to file rape and related charges.

Under the current law, some exceptions to the time limit already apply. The statute of limitations can be lifted if new DNA evidence emerges, or if felony sex offenses against minors are filed any time before the victim turns 40, according to the Los Angeles Times.

The new measure passed without one dissenting vote, after the legislature heard the emotional stories of alleged victims of the comedian, according to The Mercury News.

Some of the allegations against Cosby stem from the 1960s. Cosby, the star of the longtime, family-friendly comedy that bears his name, has unwaveringly denied he assaulted anyone and has said all of his encounters were consensual.

He has only been criminally charged in one case. A former employee of Temple University in Philadelphia alleges Cosby drugged and sexually assaulted her at his home in 2004. That trial is set to start in Pennsylvania in June.

Cosby also faces a civil suit in California by a woman, now in her 50s, who alleges that in 1974, when she was 15, he gave her alcohol and molested her at the Playboy Mansion in Los Angeles.

Under the incoming California law, no Cosby accuser could bring charges against the comedian.

However, opponents of the law have said the span of time the law allows could lead to more wrongful convictions. They are concerned about reconstructing events using fallible evidence, such as witness testimony, according to the Sacramento Bee. 

In addition to joining Nevada and Colorado, California will become the 18th state without a statue of limitations for rape.  

“Rapists should never be able to evade legal consequences simply because an arbitrary time limit has expired,” said Democratic state Sen. Connie Leyva, the author of the bill, in a statement. “[The bill] tells every rape and sexual assault victim in California that they matter and that, regardless of when they are ready to come forward, they will always have an opportunity to seek justice in a court of law.”

This law is significant because out of every 1,000 rapes, only an estimated 344 are reported to police, according to analysis by the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN). Among college-aged victims, 20 percent of women who are students are estimated to report rape, and 32 percent of women who are not students are estimated to report it, according to RAINN. Of the sexual violence crimes not reported from 2005 to 2010, 20 percent feared retaliation while 13 percent feared the police wouldn’t do anything. Another 13 percent said they didn't report it because it was a personal matter.

The new California law, and others like it, also points to a shift in nationwide attitudes about rape in response not just to the Cosby allegations, but also in the wake of other sexual harassment scandals such as the one surrounding Roger Ailes, the former chief executive of Fox News. The case of Brock Turner, the former Stanford swimmer whose six-month jail term for raping an intoxicated, unconscious women outside a party, also garnered a similar response.

“It’s very different than it would have been 10 or 15 years ago … the response has been almost unanimously pro victim,”  RAINN founder and chief executive officer Scott Berkowitz told The Christian Science Monitor's Stacy Teicher Khadaroo in June. 

"He compares it to the evolution of responses to sexual assault allegations against Bill Cosby, from a sort of public shrug when they first surfaced to recent 'universal scorn' as more and more women have come forward," writes Ms. Khadaroo. 

This report contains material from the Associated Press. 

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