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Some old molest charges may stand
Supreme Court's ruling on statute of limitations doesn't negate state law
By GUY KOVNER / THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
July 13, 2003 - The U.S. Supreme Court ruling that spelled freedom for hundreds of accused child molesters in California doesn't let all offenders off the hook for past crimes, lawyers say.
Nearly lost amid the controversy over the dismissal of charges in high-profile sex abuse cases like that of former Santa Rosa priest Don Kimball is the fact that California no longer has any time limit on the filing of charges for serious sexual abuse of children.
The previous time limit, or statute of limitations, on most child molestation cases was six years.
The high court, in a 5-4 decision last month, said California erred in suspending the time limit and allowing the prosecution of decades-old cases against Catholic priests and other accused molesters.
Attorney General Bill Lockyer immediately advised district attorneys to dismiss all current criminal charges and seek release from prison for all persons sentenced for crimes committed before 1988. He said as many as 800 cases could be affected.
In Sonoma County, the child molestation conviction of Kimball, a defrocked priest, was dismissed last week, and charges against at least seven other men are expected to be dropped amid cries of outrage from some victims.
But the high court didn't reject the entire law.
Following Lockyer's lead, prosectors in Sonoma and Los Angeles counties are reviewing their case files to see which, if any, old charges may still stand.
How far they can reach back in time is a subject of some debate, but two facts are undisputed by prosecutors and defense attorneys:Since Jan. 1, 1994, when the law took effect, California has had no time limit on filing charges for serious child sex abuse. The alleged crimes must involve "substantial sexual conduct" and charges must be filed within one year of being reported to police.
To be sustained, the charges must be corroborated by "independent evidence" supporting the victim's account.
"You might say the law is good from 1994 onward," Santa Rosa defense attorney Steve Gallenson said.
Serious child sex abuse crimes committed prior to Jan. 1, 1988 may no longer be prosecuted because the statute of limitations had expired before the new law took effect.
The high court said the revival of any case for which the statute of limitations had expired violated a defendant's constitutional rights by, in effect, "changing the rules in the middle of the game."
Upholding constitutional law "often leads to unhappy results," defense lawyer Chris Andrian said last week, as charges against Kimball, his client, were dismissed.
But the six years between 1988 and 1994 remain a gray area in the wake of the Supreme Court ruling, according to Gallenson and Larry Scoufos, chief deputy district attorney for Sonoma County.
Lockyer and some prosecutors assert that if the six-year statute of limitations was running on Jan. 1, 1994, when the law took effect, prosecution is still possible.
"We want to make that really clear," said Hallye Jordan, a spokeswoman for the attorney general. Children who were victimized from 1988 on "can still come forward," she said.
"That's our reading of it," said Jane Robison, spokeswoman for Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley.
Prosecutors in Los Angeles will pursue any serious child molestation committed after Jan. 1, 1988, she said.
In Sonoma County, prosecutors will consider filing charges on any case after 1988 as well, Scoufos said.
He said prosecutors haven't received any allegations regarding Kimball involving crimes since 1988.
But Scoufos conceded there could be legal challenges to cases falling between 1988 and 1994. "The Supreme Court wasn't really definitive on that issue," he said.
Gallenson contends that the law cannot be used on cases prior to 1990, due to statutory technicalities. The period between 1990 and 1994 is, at best, uncertain, he added.
At issue is whether the high court ruling prohibited states from extending a statute of limitations that had yet to expire.
Neil Brem of Windsor, one of Kimball's accusers, said that California must ensure that there is no statute of limitations on child sex abuse.
"That should be made clear from now on," he said.
Victim advocate Don Hoard of Petaluma said people abused by priests should report it to police, no matter how long ago the alleged crime occurred.
One victim's story could provide corroboration for another, he said. "You never know what (the police) are working on," he said.
Santa Rosa Bishop Daniel Walsh's determination to root out child molesters in the clergy is unchanged, said Deirdre Frontczak, diocese spokeswoman.
Victims are encouraged to report offenses to the diocese review board, which will investigate claims and take appropriate action, she said.
"We will absolutely not have anyone who has even one allegation of sexual misconduct serving in our diocese," she said.
The bishop also has pledged that all sex abuse reports will be submitted to police.
You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 521-5457 or firstname.lastname@example.org.