OLYMPIA – Virginia Graham’s journey to get justice for victims of child sex abuse isn’t over, but after nearly 10 years of pleading and prodding the Legislature she can take a breather.
A bill that extends the statute of limitations on child sex crimes, to allow charges to be filed until the victim turns 30, was signed into law Thursday afternoon. The Spokane mother of three stood at Gov. Jay Inslee’s right hand as he put his signature on the bill. Former state Rep. John Ahern, who fought for much of that decade to change the law, was nearby, as was newly elected state Rep. Jeff Holy, who picked up the fight when he succeeded Ahern.
In one hand, Graham held a handkerchief that moved frequently to her face, dabbing tears as Inslee signed the bill and ceremonial pens were passed out. In the other, she clutched tight to a pair of purple and white rosaries that wound around her palm.
The rosaries, she later explained, came from the funerals of her brother and sister, who like her were victims of sexual abuse as children. Her brother committed suicide. Her sister ran away from home as a teenager and soon after became one of the victims of serial killer Gary Ridgway.
When Ridgway was sentenced in 2003, Graham began searching for a purpose behind her sister’s death. That became what she calls “a verbalized prayer for a change in the law.”
Washington law extends the statute of limitations for charging a suspect in a case of child sexual assault, but the rules are complicated and vary with the age of the victim. In most cases a child must report the abuse while still a minor, when they are unlikely to do so because of threats or psychological manipulation by their abuser.
Initially, Ahern tried to remove the statute, making child sexual abuse like murder in allowing a suspect to be brought to trial at any time if the evidence is strong enough. Members of the law enforcement community balked, saying convictions get less likely with each passing year, and changing the law would give victims false hope. Bills would easily pass the House and then die in the Senate, sometimes without a vote.
“People you’re trying to reach have no idea what it’s like,” Graham said.
This year, Holy, a Cheney Republican who is an attorney and former police detective, sponsored a modified version, which will allow charges to be filed for sex abuse involving someone under 18 that is reported before the victim turns 30. First- and second-degree rape can be prosecuted up to 10 years later if a victim who is 18 or older reports it within a year of the assault. That bill, the freshman legislator’s first, passed both chambers unanimously and takes effect July 28.
The signing was a bittersweet victory for Graham because her brother and sister weren’t there, but it was also a partial victory on which she hopes to build.
There’s no statute of limitations on murder, whether the person kills with a gun, a knife or a car, she said: There should be no statute of limitations on prosecuting a sexual abuser when that abuse leads to the death of the victim later in life.
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