Is this the year Minnesota gets rid of the statute of limitations on sexual assault?
People who commit sexual assault will be at risk of criminal charges for the rest of their lives if a bill to eliminate Minnesota's statute of limitations on rape and other sex crimes gets enough support in the Legislature.
William Dinkel, a survivor of child sexual abuse and a Long Prairie native, has advocated for the policy.
A law change will send a message to victims that the justice system and the government care about them and want justice, Dinkel said Tuesday.
"It also sends a message to abusers: 'We're not going to take this anymore. Sexual abuse is as important as murder. And we're going to find out who you are and we're going to come after you. We're going to listen to victims and we're going to come after you,'" Dinkel said.
There's no statute of limitations on murder charges.
Now, criminal complaints for sexual assault must be filed in court within nine years, or within three years of the date the crime was reported to police in the case of victims who were children at the time. There's no time limit if there's DNA evidence in the case.
The burden of proof would remain the same; the bill would simply remove any time limits on prosecuting sexual assault cases.
The proposal has support from the Minnesota County Attorneys Association. It's sponsored by lawmakers from both parties. And it passed unanimously through the House Public Safety and Criminal Justice Reform Finance and Policy Committee in early March. It has more requirements in the House and has not yet been heard in the Senate.
Even with bipartisan support, the bill isn't a shoo-in.
"I remain hopeful that we can hear this bill this year," said Sen. David Senjem, R-Rochester, chief author of the Senate version. If it isn't heard this year, it will carry over to next session.
What are the objections?
Some people may object to the bill out of fear of false accusations, Senjem said. "I don't think we can walk away from that controversy," he said. "I think it's important that we step up to it."
Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, is the gatekeeper on the bill's path through the Senate, because he chairs the Judiciary and Public Safety Committee.
"We are studying this issue," Limmer told the St. Cloud Times in a statement. "Current Minnesota law has no statute of limitations if there is (DNA) evidence that a crime took place. If this becomes law, it would allow a criminal charge to be filed without (DNA) evidence, and that makes getting a conviction extremely rare."
Frank Weber is a licensed psychologist who treats sex offenders at the Sartell-based CORE Professional Services. He's the clinical director there and supports ending the statute of limitations on first- and second-degree criminal sexual conduct, which includes rape and sexual abuse of children under 13.
"From a treatment standpoint, it's easier to get people to admit offenses when they know they can no longer be prosecuted for them. But as a moral person, I feel rape victims are entitled to justice," Weber told the St. Cloud Times in an email.
But his conviction wanes with third-degree crimes, including statutory rape for example, Weber said in an interview. "What happens is you have some people who were 18 and sexual with someone who was 15, and they're now married. … If somebody talks about this years later, do you charge this guy and send him to jail when they're both in their 20s or 30s?"
Cases with DNA and cases without
There's no time limit for sex abuse cases with DNA evidence.
But on average, victims of child sexual abuse do not disclose the assault until they're 52 years old, according to CHILD USA, a think tank working to end child abuse and neglect.
When someone takes years to report a sexual assault those cases usually lack DNA evidence, and they're different in other ways too.
DNA can tell investigators who committed a sexual assault when the perpetrator was initially unknown, said Stearns County Attorney Janelle Kendall. Often, reports of sexual assault are delayed because the victim knows the person who assaulted them.
"They may be a family member. They may be an acquaintance. They may be a teacher. They may be a member of the clergy," Kendall told the St. Cloud Times. "It's someone they care about or someone that other people who are important to them (the victim) cares about. And they are afraid they won't be believed by their own friends and family … or they know this report will very much hurt their friends and family."
Juries don't have to have corroboration — such as DNA or documentation in addition to a victim's testimony — to convict, but they do have to agree that there's proof of a crime beyond a reasonable doubt, Kendall said.
The appointment of Justice Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court, amid an allegation of sexual misconduct from his high school years, gives some insight into public opinion and what a jury might require for proof beyond a reasonable doubt, Kendall said. It's difficult, but not impossible to take on cases without corroborating evidence.
"We want victims to report, even if it's delayed, even if it's not a case that can be proven in the criminal justice system right now," she said. "Let's at least do an investigation, because sometimes, even if your report does not become one that can be proven beyond a reasonable doubt in court right now, another case might come forward, another victim might come forward from that offender. And this is not unusual. We see this."
That happened with the Rev. Anthony Oelrich, a St. Cloud priest sentenced to prison last year for illegally engaging in sexual conduct with a parishioner. Multiple accusers reported him.
In another high-profile case, the statute of limitations prevented Stearns County from filing a criminal complaint against Danny Heinrich for assaulting a Cold Spring child before Jacob Wetterling was abducted in 1989, Kendall said.
Heinrich confessed in 2016 to assaulting that Cold Spring boy and abducting and killing Wetterling.
When the statute of limitations was eliminated for cases with DNA evidence, it didn't affect old cases, like Heinrich's, Kendall said. The same will be true if the statute of limitations is eliminated for cases without DNA evidence. The change will only apply to future cases or crimes committed within the current statute.
What's next for the bill?
"Sometimes bills just need to incubate so that people know they're there, they can think about them, we can take suggestions on them," said Senjem, the Senate chief author.
Dinkel, who shared his story of sexual abuse and trauma with the St. Cloud Times last year, hopes that the bill will pass this session.
"This is an incredible time for victims and survivors and I think it's the right time to do it," Dinkel said. That's because of the #MeToo movement and revelations about how common sexual abuse is.
"It's just long overdue for one thing, but it's the right time to do this," he said.