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Vestal: Rape law advocate finds change is slow

Virginia Graham would like to see Washington lengthen its statute of limitations for sex crimes against children. (File)
Virginia Graham would like to see Washington lengthen its statute of limitations for sex crimes against children. (File)

Virginia Graham didn’t get into politics for the politics.

“I’m probably the least political person you’ve ever met,” she said.

And yet her desire to lengthen Washington’s statute of limitations on child rape has led her straight into politics – into a tough West Side campaign, into meetings with lawmakers, into the weeds of legislative strategy. Graham’s political strategy is straightforward: She refuses to be ignored. And so, in the period between the last legislative session until the next one, she has transformed herself from someone who couldn’t get a call back to someone who found herself across the table from the head of the Senate committee that oversees corrections issues, Jim Hargrove of Hoquiam.

“I did not expect myself to be sitting across from Sen. Hargrove, ever,” said Graham. “I was trying for us not to see each other as fire-breathing dragons.”

Oh, yes – the fire-breathing. It’s another way that Graham has found herself fully involved in the strange world of politics, where people often take big verbal swings at each other, then sit down to negotiate or compromise.

In the last legislative session, Hargrove had bottled up a bill to eliminate the statute of limitations on sex crimes. The bill had passed the House unanimously, but Hargrove wanted to wait for input from the Sex Offender Policy Board before proceeding – a move that angered Graham and other supporters of the House bill. She wound up working against Hargrove’s re-election campaign, which he eventually won.

On the statute of limitations question, Hargrove said he simply wanted to hear from the board before making rash decisions. He also found himself in the unenviable position of raising legitimate practical issues in the face of strong emotional pressure. Prosecuting crimes from years ago can be difficult and problematic in many ways; it is not pro-rapist to point that out, or to note that the justice system, because it has limited resources, has to set priorities and perform a kind of triage.

Still, there is a growing movement in many states to eliminate or lengthen the time that such crimes can be pursued in court.

In any case, that was the battle Graham took up following the last legislative session. It’s a personal campaign for her. She grew up suffering horrific sexual abuse at the hands of her stepfather. So did her brother and sister. Her brother committed suicide as a result, and her sister fled for the streets, where she disappeared at age 15. That sister, Debbie Estes, was one of the 48 official victims of Gary Ridgway, the Green River Killer.

Over the course of that investigation, Graham came to confront what had happened to her as a child. She says there is good evidence – including statements made to police – in her case, though it was decades ago and the clock for prosecuting the crimes ran out long ago.

Washington’s current statute of limitations on sex crimes is based on a complicated series of factors. Rapes of children 14 and under that are reported to the police within a year may be prosecuted until the victim’s 28th birthday. If not reported, the window is shorter.

A few weeks ago, the Sex Offender Policy Board returned its recommendations – the ones that Hargrove was waiting on. The board recommended keeping the statute of limitations more or less where it is, arguing that there is little evidence about many of the questions surrounding old, unsolved cases, and that successful and fair prosecutions rely on the most recent evidence. The state’s association of prosecutors has not taken an official position on this, and yet you sense their concerns lurking behind those of the board and Hargrove.

So now what? That’s where Graham’s political adolescence ended and adulthood began. Where she left behind one kind of battle for another – a longer, less clear-cut, more difficult campaign. She and a pair of Spokane lawmakers met with Hargrove to discuss what happens from here. A new House proposal is likely during the upcoming session of the legislature; Hargrove expressed some concerns about the last one, Graham said.

They heard each other out, she said, and that included “a little bit of sparks, little bit of venting.” But Hargrove also told her he didn’t necessarily have to follow the policy board’s recommendations, she said.

In other words, things have progressed from one form of uncertainty to another. But they have progressed.

“What was really good for me to be able to see – I had the chance to actually talk to him and see him face to face,” she said.

In the end, she feels optimistic about the prospects for legislation in the coming session. But she has adopted still another one of the attitudes of the political reality – the recognition that change is sometimes slow and incremental, that sometimes if you don’t get all of what you want, you can get some of it and then come back again next year.

“If something doesn’t happen by 2013,” she said, “we’re going to keep working in 2014.”

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.