Over the course of five years, Ohio tested 13,931 kits and got 5,024 DNA matches against known profiles, leading to criminal charges filed against hundreds of suspects. AP photo

Ohio considers eliminating time limits to prosecute rape cases

During the course of five years, Ohio tested 13,931 kits and got 5,024 DNA matches against known profiles, leading to criminal charges filed against hundreds of suspects.

But justice remains elusive in 87 cases where a DNA match was found but the attacks happened outside Ohio’s statute of limitations on rape cases — 20 to 25 years, depending on the circumstances. Eight of those cases are in Butler County and one in Springfield.

“Rape, in my opinion, is very much like murder and we shouldn’t be closing and locking the doors to the courthouse because of the passage of time,” said Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost.

Yost and former Ohio attorneys general Jim Petro, Betty Montgomery, Marc Dann, Nancy Rogers, Richard Cordray and Lee Fisher as well as DeWine are calling on lawmakers to remove the statute of limitations on rape cases to allow prosecutions to go forward, no matter how much time has passed.

DeWine also called on lawmakers to consider changing the statute of limitations on other sex crimes, strengthen the sexual assault laws applied to people in power positions over their victims, and review extending the statute of limitations for civil cases involving sexual abuse.

“We know in sexual abuse cases, victims often delay disclosure of the abuse inflicted upon them. The time has come, I believe, for the state of Ohio to get rid of the statute of limitations for rape,” DeWine said.

Related: DeWine: End the statute of limitations on rape, sex assault in wake of OSU case

Criminal cases require proof beyond a reasonable doubt while civil cases need a preponderance of evidence, which is a lower bar to clear.

If Ohio were to remove its statute of limitations on rape, it could impact any sexual assaults that occurred more than 25 years ago but were never prosecuted.

Despite high-profile support for eliminating the statute of limitations, it’s unclear whether it’ll gain traction in the Ohio General Assembly.

“We’ll see. I’d like to hear some testimony on it and talk to prosecutors, talk to judges and public defenders and other defense attorneys,” said Senate President Larry Obhof, R-Medina. And Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman John Eklund, R-Chardon, said “I see big problems with eliminating the statute of limitations.”

Both Eklund and Obhof noted that in recent years, Ohio changed its law to extend the statute of limitations by five years once DNA evidence has been found in a case. “In cases where there is DNA evidence, we essentially have an unlimited statute now,” Obhof said.

Statutes of limitations are designed to protect defendants from stale claims where they may have lost the evidence needed to defend themselves. Ohio is among 22 states with statute of limitations in rape cases, according to Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network.

State Reps. Kristin Boggs, D-Columbus, and Tavia Galonski, D-Akron, and state Sens. Sean O’Brien, D-Cortland, and Nickie Antonio, D-Lakewood, are sponsoring legislation to eliminate both the statute of limitations for criminal and civil sex crimes and spousal exemptions for rape, sexual battery, and other sexual offenses.

“We believe that now, more than ever, the public is on the side of removing the artificial line in the sand that prevents a survivor from coming forward to report such emotionally traumatic and violent experiences, especially because every survivor processes their trauma in their own time,” Antonio said in a written statement.

Neither bill has yet had a hearing but Antonio expects it to garner attention in the fall when lawmakers return from summer break.

The question of when victims of sexual abuse can get justice erupted earlier this year at Ohio State University when a scathing report detailed how at least 177 male students and student-athletes were abused by Dr. Richard Strauss, a physician on faculty from 1979 to 1998. Despite repeated complaints, the misconduct was not reported beyond the athletic department or student health center for 15 years and the university administration failed to report it to law enforcement, the report said.

Strauss died by suicide in 2005. But if he were alive today, the statute of limitations on Ohio books would likely prevent prosecution — even though 177 former students provided credible, first-hand accounts to investigators.

Related: Lawmakers may open window for lawsuits against OSU in doctor abuse case

State Rep. Brett Hillyer, R-Ulrichville, is sponsoring House Bill 249, which would open a look-back window to allow men who were sexually abused by Strauss to sue the university for damages in state courts.

Ohio State is now facing multiple federal lawsuits from former students.

“How furious would the public be today if this man were still alive and could not be prosecuted?” DeWine said. “…I would ask the General Assembly, in light of this tragedy, to look at this issue again. Take a fresh look at it.”

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