SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — It has taken Jolene Loetscher more than 15 years to come to terms with a rape she says she endured as a teenager in Nebraska, but according to state law at the time, she waited too long to seek punishment for the man she accuses of stealing her childhood in the back of the store where she worked.
While 23 states currently have no statute of limitations on some form of sexual assault, prosecutors in several states — including South Dakota, where Loetscher now lives — remain bound by laws that restrict the length of time they can charge someone for a sex crime.
In South Dakota, prosecutors can only charge a suspect in a rape case up to seven years after the crime was committed or until the victim is 25, whichever is longer.
Loetscher, now 33, hopes to change that with the help of her friend, South Dakota state Sen. Mark Johnson, who has introduced a bill in the state Senate that would eliminate the state's statute of limitations for rape cases.
"As a survivor, it's really frustrating the law says something I have to live with the rest of my life has a deadline," Loetscher said. "You can look at other crimes — stealing a car — and you will get over that. You can buy another car. You can get insurance. But with crimes of sexual assault, you live with that for the rest of your life, every day. We shouldn't be allowing these perpetrators to suddenly get a free pass because, oh there, I can mark that day off the calendar and it's free and clear."
It wasn't until last year that Loetscher traveled to the small Nebraska town where she was born and raised to confront the former family friend she alleges abused her trust and sexually assaulted her over a period of nine months.
"It was surreal," she said of that day last January, which she refers to as her second birthday. "As a child, you're not in a position to process and work through what's happened to you. I was 32 years old before I could finally do what I wish I could have done at 15."
The Nebraska Legislature has since eliminated the statute of limitations for some criminal prosecutions, including certain sex crimes. Loetscher said she was told by a lawyer that it was too late to pursue criminal charges.
Johnson says the change he's proposing in South Dakota is important because it can take victims longer than the time allowed under the law to come to grips with what happened to them.
"There is no statute of limitations for murder in South Dakota. I would argue there should be no statute of limitation for the crime of rape, as well, because it's one of the most vile things a person can do to another person," said Johnson, R-Sioux Falls, adding that he has received positive feedback from other victims and advocacy organizations.
The statute of limitations varies widely from state to state and among criminal and civil, said Jeff Dion, deputy director for the National Center for Victims of Crime. Beyond the 23 states that have no statute of limitations on some form of sexual assault, several others allow for the statute of limitations to be extended in cases where DNA evidence is available.
South Dakota has one of the shortest statute of limitations for rape cases at seven years or until the victim is 25. Still, prosecutors in other states have even less time. In Indiana, prosecutors must press charges within five for some felony sexual assaults, while the statute of limitations can be as short as three years for some felonies in Hawaii, according to a database of state laws compiled by the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network.
Scott Berkowitz, founder and president of Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, said there's been a trend over the past decade to lengthen the statute of limitations in sex crimes cases.
"The theory of the statute of limitation overall, they were necessary because witnesses memories fade," Berkowitz said.
But the advent of DNA technology as well as the child sex abuse scandal that rocked the Catholic Church has brought renewed attention to the issue of limiting prosecution in rape crimes, Dion said.
"The law has begun to recognize the science of why victims can take a long time to report," Dion said. "Now states are realizing there is an opportunity for justice."
The Florida Legislature passed a bill in 2010 eliminating the statute of limitations for child sex abuse cases.
"It took three or four years to get it through, but it ultimately passed the Legislature unanimously," Dion noted.
But defense lawyers say prosecuting a rape decades later can be problematic because eyewitnesses' accounts change.
Even in cases where there is forensic evidence, there can be wrongful convictions, said Lisa Wayne, president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. Many of the inmates exonerated by the Innocence Project were sent to prison based on DNA evidence that was later found to be mishandled or tainted in how it was gathered, she said.
"There is this sense that if there is DNA, there must not be a mistake," she said.
Wayne, who lives in Colorado, a state that has no statute of limitations, says most of the cold cases prosecuted are for homicides, and few are solely for sex offenses.
Still, Johnson is pushing forward with the change in South Dakota. He, Loetscher and representatives from advocacy organizations are scheduled to testify in support of the bill at a committee hearing next week.
Loetscher, who owns her own public relations firm, has started focusing more of her time advocating for victims of sexual abuse. Besides spearheading the legislation in South Dakota, she is working to create a camp for child sex abuse victims. She said she is considering filing a civil lawsuit against the man she alleged raped her.
While she wishes the rape had never happened, Loetscher said she is going to make sure something positive comes from her experience.
"It's saying this is one of the ugliest things that can happen to someone, but I will put a purpose to it," she said.
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