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For Sexual Assault Victims, An Effort To Loosen Statutes Of Limitations

Allegations of sexual assault against Bill Cosby as well as intensified focus on campus rape have left many prosecutors struggling to figure out new ways to right old wrongs. Now, a growing number of states are changing their statutes of limitations to allow sexual assault cases to be prosecuted years and even decades after the fact.

"We have to keep the door open for justice for survivors," says Rebecca O'Connor from the Rape, Abuse And Incest National Network.

State statutes of limitations currently range from 3 to 30 years. O'Connor says a new understanding about how rape victims often need time to recover from their trauma is bolstering efforts to loosen their time limits.

"It has been nonstop, the public outrage and awareness about access to justice. That's really been mushrooming," she says.

Several states, including Florida and Nevada, have lengthened their time limits. More than a half-dozen more, are actively considering it, and many states have no limit at all for cases where there's DNA evidence or for the most serious rapes. Virginia is one of those with an open-ended policy. It's what allowed one woman just this week to go to the police and report a rape that she says happened at a small college on her 19th birthday 19 years ago.

"I was staying overnight in someone's dorm room and was starting to fall asleep and a stranger walked in that I never had met before and in my mind he knew what he was going in there to do and he made it happen," she says.

The woman, who asked that her name not be used to protect her privacy, says she told school security and a school nurse what happened but she was so traumatized and in such deep denial for years that she didn't even consider telling police she was raped.

"I didn't even recognize it as that. I minimized it in my mind and I just kinda blew it off that it was a bad night because I just wanted to believe that it didn't happen," she says.

Now she says going to police is not only important to her own healing but also, as her lawyer and founder of the advocacy group SurvJustice Laura Dunn says, it's a matter of public safety.

"Every single state has an interest in making sure that individuals who are predatory are taken off the street and if that means someone speaking out later, that's something we should be supporting," Dunn says.

But how much later is the subject of fierce debate. Gerry Morris of the National Association of Criminal Defense Attorneys says its wrong to totally eliminate time limits, or to make them, as he puts it, "ridiculously long."

"How would I mount a defense to an accusation of something that occurred two decades ago or is that person just basically a sitting duck at this point?" he asks.

Morris says time limits were enacted for a reason: memories fade, evidence gets lost and witnesses are hard to find.

But Cardoza Law School professor Marci Hamilton says defendents have ample protections at trial, and the prosecutors have the bigger challenge — to prove their case beyond a reasonable doubt. Concerns about wrongful convictions are unfounded, she says.

"Prosecutors winnow out the cases where they think they can't win, and so there's a natural fault in the system where weak cases simply are not picked up for prosecution," she says.

A bill approved by lawmakers this week in Oregon aims for a middle ground by differentiating between weak and stronger cases. All cases have a 12-year window for prosecution. But the limit is lifted in cases where there is hard evidence, for example, or multiple accusers.

The sponsor, State Sen. Floyd Prozanski, says he was pilloried by some advocates for not supporting longer windows for all cases. But as a guy who was traumatized himself by the murder of his sister in high school, Prozanski knows how emotion can lead to bad decisions.

"I literally was wanting to grab one of my hunting guns and go hunt the guy down. But the reality is when we're in these situations, we have to take away these emotions and we can't just basically say we're going to just remove any safeguards that we currently have," Prozanski says.

Experts say the next step might be to open doors wider for civil cases, so even when an alleged victim misses the deadline for prosecution, an alleged perpetrator would still not be totally off the hook.

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Tovia Smith is an award-winning NPR National Correspondent based in Boston, who's spent more than three decades covering news around New England and beyond.