It happens every time a victim of child sexual abuse wins a lawsuit: the cries that these people are only in it for the money.
Only in it for the money. Only in it for the money. It’s a club wielded by those whose moral compasses are just spinning wildly. But the lawsuit-only system of addressing these past crimes does beg a question: What about other avenues of justice? What if the clock never stopped ticking on the criminal prosecution of child rapists?
Virginia Graham would like to see that happen. Specifically, she would like to see Washington lengthen its statute of limitations for sex crimes against children, and along with John Ahern – who’s done as a legislator but not finished with this issue – she’s turning that into a full-time mission.
“Right now, we only hold the rich or the insured accountable,” Graham said. “What kind of justice is that?”
In Washington, there are a handful of crimes for which the prosecution clock never stops ticking: murder, homicide by abuse, arson if a death results, vehicular homicide, hit-and-run if a death results. Graham and Ahern want Washington to join the growing number of states that are adding child rape to that list – or at least extending their statutes of limitation.
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.
Ahern’s proposal, in the 2011 legislative session, would have eliminated those limits under a range of circumstances. That bill passed the House unanimously, and then got hung up in the Human Services and Corrections Committee. Committee chairman Jim Hargrove didn’t give the bill a hearing, referring it to the Sex Offender Policy Board for recommendations.
That decision has become a political cudgel. Both Graham and Ahern, a Republican who left the Legislature and is planning a run for the Spokane City Council, are unsparing in their view of Hargrove’s resistance to this bill, which they see as reluctance to protect victims.
Hargrove, a Democrat from Hoquiam, says he does not oppose the bill but is simply waiting to hear the recommendations of the policy board. He says he will introduce legislation based on those in the upcoming session. In past interviews, he has said that he heard concerns from prosecutors and law enforcement officials, but he told me this week that his intention was to move deliberately and with caution, not to kill the proposal.
Graham’s passion for this issue is deeply personal. A 47-year-old Spokane mother of three, Graham said she and her siblings grew up in an Auburn-area home with horrific sexual abuse at the hands of her stepfather. A brother committed suicide as a result, she said. A sister fled for the streets; in 1982, at the age of 15, that sister, Debbie Estes, disappeared. Years later, she would be named one of the 48 official victims of Gary Ridgway, the Green River Killer; Ridgway is believed to have killed as many as 71 women. He was sentenced to life in prison in 2003.
It was the long, drawn-out circumstances surrounding the investigation into her sister’s death that slowly brought Graham to confront what had happened to her as a child. She knows firsthand that survivors often cannot begin to deal with what happened to them until they are in their 30s or 40s.
Over the course of several years, Graham began to revisit what had happened to her, and she eventually discovered that police had statements regarding the abuse, she said. As she delved into it further, she found many people who did or could corroborate the facts – information she considers solid, stand-up-in-court evidence.
Of course, the legal deadline for the prosecution of those crimes had passed. As she looked back over the events of her life – at what the adults around her did and did not do – she realized that what lay under the actions and inaction was the law itself. That was the potential arena for change.
Ahern, meanwhile, first proposed eliminating the statute of limitations on sex crimes a decade ago. It’s an idea with an immediate popular appeal, but it’s not always so simple in practice. Prosecuting crimes that are decades old can be very difficult – often impossible – and there are other practical impediments.
But Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich has backed Ahern’s bill, and his reasoning is hard to dispute.
“(U)ntil we as a community recognize the seriousness of sexual assaults, especially those committed on our most vulnerable population, and treat them the way we treat homicides, those crimes will continue to be viewed as lesser offenses,” Knezovich wrote in a letter of support.
Understandably, Graham views resistance to this bill – whether it’s bureaucratic caution or legislative procedure – as an indication of badly misguided priorities. To her, it feels like just another example of the systemic indifference that greeted the crimes against her as a young child, which set off a lifetime of questions that have no statute of limitations.
“Doesn’t the truth matter?” Graham asks. “Doesn’t anybody care?”