Statutes of Limitations

Contributed by Charles Platt

For two weeks, now, UK residents have been stunned by an avalanche of revelations–or at least accusations–regarding the BBC and one of its most famous, nationally revered figures, Sir Jimmy Savile, a disc jockey who hosted shows over a period of decades. Savile endeared himself to the British by doing charity work for hospitals, and was even given his own little room at one, allowing him free access to the entire facility. Apparently he used this access to molest young people, many of them under the age of consent, when they were incapacitated or in wheel chairs. I’m reminded of Willie Sutton’s famous quote, explaining that he robbed banks because “that’s where the money was.” Savile appears to have volunteered at a hospital because “that’s where the helpless young girls were.” The appearance of cold-blooded premeditation is remarkable.

He was also a frequent visitor to a “reform home” for “troubled young girls,” some of whom he would take for rides in his Rolls Royce, where the self-described victims have alleged that sex acts occurred in the back seat. Several hundred women have now come forward with allegations. One BBC executive has already resigned, while others are finding it difficult to claim that they knew nothing. Contemporaries of Savile who are still alive, especially in the music-broadcasting section of the BBC, are being named as co-conspirators. Savile seems to have gotten away with it because he was protected by his fame, his wealth, and his charitable donations to the very places where he has been accused of preying on innocents. Others who worked with him are much more vulnerable, even though they may be now in their 70s and 80s.

Since Savile is now dead, the British press is relatively free to run with this story, despite the strict libel laws in the UK. Journalists have been far more circumspect about naming living suspects–until they issue statements of denial, at which point they become “fair game.”

More interesting to me (but less relevant to this blog) is that there is no statute of limitations on serious sex crimes in the UK. Since many of the alleged events occurred in the 1970s, a defendant may have a hard time coming up with exculpatory evidence to refute the allegations of a sobbing alleged victim in a court room. A blog here claims that in Germany, claims from victims dropped by 80% when that nation discontinued its practice of awarding compensation to crime victims, except where there was corroborative evidence. The same blog claims that, conversely, in Britain, where compensation is paid to victims, claims of abuse that occured decades ago have doubled during the past three years, coincidentally with the economic downturn. 

A statute of limitations may seem intuitively unjust to many people. If the crime occurred, why should someone get away with it just because it happened more than, say, 7 years ago? I note that in some areas of the US, limitations have already been abolished or modified for sex offenses, thus copying the British model.

I am assuming that readers of this blog would distrust any further erosion of statutes of limitations, especially if such protection was reduced or eliminated in First Amendment cases.

Or would they?