Court strikes down law reviving prosecutions for old sex crimes

Friday, June 27, 2003

WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court, ruling in the case of a man accused of raping his young daughters decades ago, said Thursday that the government cannot retroactively erase statutes of limitations to allow prosecutions of old crimes.

The decision may overturn as many as 800 child molestation convictions in California, some of them involving Roman Catholic priests, and bar the prosecution of dozens of other pending cases. It also puts in doubt the constitutionality of a terrorism-fighting law passed after the 2001 attacks.

The court divided 5-4 in striking down a California law that allowed prosecutions for long-ago sex crimes. It was challenged by a 72-year-old man whose daughters said they were too afraid to report him to police until they were adults.

The majority, anchored by the court's liberals, said it was fundamentally unfair for the government to change the rules after the fact.

Angry dissent

In an angry dissent, four justices said that "when a child molester commits his offense, he is well aware the harm will plague the victim for a lifetime."

The law should "show its compassion and concern when the victim at last can find the strength, and know the necessity to come forward," Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote for the four. "The court now tells the victims their decision to come forward is in vain."

The case gave the court its first opportunity to say whether states can retroactively nullify criminal statutes of limitations. Statutes of limitations vary by state and by crime. In some instances, they are as short as one year for minor wrongdoing while without limit for murder.

A ruling the other way would have allowed the government to change expired deadlines for many crimes, from writing bad checks to molesting children. Critics argue that it would be difficult for anyone to defend himself after the passage of time, with witnesses dead and evidence lost.

Justice Stephen Breyer, writing for the majority, said that prosecuting child abusers is important "but there is also a predominating constitutional interest in forbidding the state to revive a long-forbidden prosecution." He also said lawmakers would be tempted to "pick and choose when to act retroactively" and could act vindictively.

Breyer was joined by Justices John Paul Stevens, Sandra Day O'Connor, David H. Souter, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

The case was closely watched because of sex abuse problems in the Roman Catholic church and the society at large. More than 300 priests have either resigned or retired because of allegations of wrongdoing.

But it also has implications for terrorism. The Bush administration had argued that a ruling against California would threaten the USA Patriot Act, which retroactively withdrew statutes of limitations in some terrorism cases. The law was passed shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks.

A Justice Department spokesman said the ruling was being reviewed and there was no immediate comment.

Some states have extended their deadlines for filing charges in sex crimes, but California took the exceptional step of retroactively changing the time limit. Charges must be filed within one year after the victims file a police report, under the law.

Earlier this week, two former Catholic priests were charged with molesting children when they were assigned to the Los Angeles archdiocese many years ago.

At issue Thursday was the case of Marion Stogner, a retired paper plant worker and veteran of the Korean War. He was charged for molestation that his daughters said began almost 50 years ago, but his prosecution was on hold.

Stogner, who lives on an Indian reservation in Arizona, denies sexually attacking his children. He said Thursday that he is in bad health and with the court victory, "Now I can die happy."

Police were told of the allegations while investigating molestation claims against his sons. His daughters said that he began molesting them when they were under age five and the abuse went on for years. One daughter said she became pregnant when she was 16, at a time she was being molested by her dad and brother.

One of the daughters, Margaret Vaughan of Mississippi, said the Supreme Court's ruling made her "feel like I've been molested all over again." She agreed to be identified on condition that her hometown not be revealed.

Three of the four dissenting justices are Catholic: Kennedy, Scalia and Thomas. Thomas attended a Catholic seminary before dropping his plans to enter the priesthood.

Without mentioning the church woes, they questioned whether "criminals keep calendars so they can mark the day to discard their records or to place a gloating phone call to the victim."

They said they were sympathetic for the women in this case who "have at last overcome shame and the desire to repress these painful memories."

The case is Stogner v. California, 01-1757.


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