California just ended the statute of limitations on rape cases. Here's why that matters.


If there is any kind of positive spin to put on the many, many sexual assault allegations against disgraced comedian Bill Cosby, it is this: His crimes are instigating important change in the legal framework surrounding rape, the most recent example being a new law in California. 

On Wednesday, California Gov. Jerry Brown signed SB813, a bill that eliminates the statute of limitations on prosecuting felony sex crimes, into law. Specifically, the law applies to "rape, sodomy, lewd or lascivious acts, continuous sexual abuse of a child, oral copulation and sexual penetration" committed forcibly, against a minor or while the victim was unconscious. 

Dubbed the Justice for Victims Act, SB813 goes into effect on Jan. 1, 2017 and applies to any of the above crimes committed after that date, as well as any committed prior to that date for which the statute of limitations has not run out.

"It's called the Justice for Victims Act for one clear and specific reason: Victims should always have the opportunity to seek justice in a court of law after such a violent act," Sen. Connie Leyva, who introduced SB813, said in August, according to the Los Angeles Times

The bill, which was inspired by the very similar stories of some 50 women who've accused Cosby of drugging and raping them, passed the Senate in a unanimous vote. And while the law won't help the majority of Cosby's accusers, it should help to encourage other sexual assault victims to speak out in the future.

Rich Pedroncelli/AP

Cosby currently faces three counts of aggravated indecent sexual assault of Andrea Constand. In 2004, Cosby allegedly gave Constand unmarked pills with the intention of sedating her; he then digitally penetrated her. The case is scheduled to go to on June 5, 2017, in Pennsylvania. 

While women periodically accused Cosby throughout his career, the accusations didn't stick until Hannibal Buress called out Cosby in an Oct. 2014 stand-up routine, according to Philadelphia magazine. About nine months later, in July 2015, New York magazine published a feature in which 35 women accused Cosby of having drugged and assaulted them, or having tried to do so. Nearly 50 women have come forward with similar stories, but the clock's run out for all but one case: Constand's.

According to Sacramento Assistant Chief Deputy District Attorney Robert Gold, eliminating the statute of limitations will make it easier for victims "to get justice at any time." For rape victims, he explained, time can make all the difference: 

Time to process the crime can embolden the victims and make them more able to "confront" it, Gold said. And then, as evidenced by the Cosby case, one victim coming forward can empower others to do the same.

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There are many reasons victims might delay in coming forward, if they come forward at all — an estimated two out of three sexual assaults go unreported. As evidenced by a number of recent cases, inability to process what happened is chief among them. 

Take, for example, the woman who accused NBA player Derrick Rose of having drugged and raped her in August 2013. She did not file charges until August 2015, and, as she explained to ThinkProgress, one of the largest reasons why was her initial inability to admit to herself that she had been raped. 

"I didn't recognize it early on," the woman, known as "Jane Doe" said. "I didn't know that situation would be an actual rape because I was just so confused and I didn't want to believe it and I didn't want to talk to anybody about it and I didn't want to remember that's what happened."

Rich Pedroncelli/AP

Doe's is not an uncommon sentiment among rape survivors. Linda Joy Traitz, whom Cosby allegedly assaulted in 1969, did not speak publicly about the assault until November 2014, when she saw people on Facebook defending the comedian by demeaning his victims. As she told New York magazine, she delayed because she didn't realize she had a crime to report — it took her many years to grasp that the assault wasn't her fault. 

"I blamed myself at the time," she said. "I thought I did something wrong. This happened when I was 18. It took me a long, long time to come to terms with the fact that it was him, it wasn't me."

Even then, the sexual assault reporting system isn't exactly stacked in the victim's favor. As the victim in the now-notorious Brock Turner case made clear in her statement at Turner's sentencing hearing, ours is a legal system that blames the victim, even when the case couldn't be clearer cut. 

"I was not only told that I was assaulted, I was told that because I couldn't remember, I technically could not prove it was unwanted," the victim said in court. "I was pummeled with narrowed, pointed questions that dissected my personal life, love life, past life, family life, inane questions, accumulating trivial details to try and find an excuse for this guy who had me half naked before even bothering to ask for my name."

Rich Pedroncelli/AP

According to CBS Los Angeles, 17 states have no statute of limitations on rape cases, while others — Colorado and Nevada, for example — have significantly lengthened theirs. According to the Los Angeles Times, the ACLU expressed concerns that California's new law would make it prohibitively difficult for the wrongfully accused to secure justice, but advocates see it as a win for survivors.

As Kamilah Willingham, a sexual assault survivor and SB813 advocate, told Broadly, the bill's passage gave her "renewed hope in legislative reform, and the idea that legislative reform will eventually create a justice system that is safe for survivors."