It wasn’t the legacy that Bill Cosby had hoped for, but it’s the one he might end up with anyway.
Dozens of women have come forward to accuse the comedian with the once-wholesome image of drugging and raping them. Most of the alleged incidents happened decades ago, and Cosby had managed to avoid actual charges – until recently, when prosecutors in Pennsylvania hit him with three felony counts in the assault of a former Temple University employee.
Looking old and pathetic in a perp walk that some snarky YouTube user set to the theme of “The Cosby Show,” he stumbled into a courthouse in Elkins Park, Pa., under a merciless crush of cameras.
Instead of making people feel sorry for him, though, the scene reignited calls for states to eliminate the statute of limitations for filing charges in rape and sexual assault cases. If not for the statutes, so the thinking goes, more rapists would be charged because many victims wait, sometimes for years, to come forward, if they do at all.
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Prosecutors in Pennsylvania, for example, beat that state’s limit of 12 years by less than three weeks. Meanwhile, in Los Angeles County, prosecutors declined to charge Cosby in a case from 1965, citing the California law that prohibits filing rape charges more than 10 years after the alleged offense unless new DNA evidence is found.
State Sen. Connie M. Leyva, D-Chino, has taken up the cause. She introduced a bipartisan bill last week that would end the statute of limitations for rape and a host of other sexual assault violations in California.
“The current law doesn't help all victims. This bill,” she said of Senate Bill 813, “is about justice."
It sounds good. But this line of thinking misses the far larger, far more important reason why so many rape and sexual assault cases are never brought to trial: the persistent backlog of rape kits.
According to federal estimates from 2014, 400,000 kits – which contain clothing, hair samples, DNA swabs and other painstakingly collected evidence – are waiting to be tested in police storage rooms and crime labs all over the country. Many of them date to the 1980s. Many law enforcement agencies don’t even know how many kits they have because they’ve never counted them.
In California, the backlog isn’t at state-run crime labs, which help process kits from 46 counties. That was cleared in 2012. The backlog is at police and sheriff’s departments, including in Fresno and Riverside. San Diego also has been singled out by advocates.
The reasons for the backlogs vary, but most stem from the fact that police have wide discretion over which rape kits they choose to test and which ones they choose to leave on a shelf.
Some departments pass on testing because a victim won’t cooperate or because the investigating officer believes the case isn’t strong enough for prosecution. A lack of funding is another reason, because each kits costs at least $1,000 to test.
But this is shortsighted thinking. DNA from a rape kit that’s uploaded to the FBI’s database, the Combined DNA Index System, can help nab serial offenders and resolve cold cases. This has been proved in a growing number of states and cities that have chosen to tackle their backlogs head on. Ohio is an example. Detroit is another.
With this in mind, the federal government has teamed with the New York District Attorney’s Office to help process rape kits in jurisdictions across the country. Nearly $80 million has been set aside for the task.
California is doing something, too. Just not enough. Assembly Bill 1517, which took effect Jan. 1, pushes law enforcement agencies to process rape kits faster and submit DNA evidence to the FBI’s database. It stops short, however, of mandating anything.
Whether states should eliminate the statute of limitations for rape is something that’s worthy of debate. But first let’s continue to work on eliminating the backlog of rape kits. These crimes are too serious to leave evidence left on a shelf.