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Will the Bernie Fine Case Spell the End of Statutes of Limitations in Child Sex Cases?

December 11, 2011

In the past month, several allegations have been made by individuals claiming that they had been molested by Syracuse assistant basketball coach Bernie Fine.

The District Attorney has stated that his office has determined that regardless of the credibility of the allegations, they will be unable to prosecute Fine because the statute of limitations has expired.  One of the accusers claims that he was inappropriately touched by Fine in 1984 and that the abuse continued until 1999.  That accuser says that he even informed the Syracuse police department in 2002 of the abuse.  ESPN had even investigated molestation allegations against Fine in 2003 but never aired the story.

In the wake of the Bernie Fine debacle, it has become abundantly clear that the public is pushing for an end to statutes of limitations for child molestation allegations.  State and federal legislators are undoubtedly listening.

In Georgia, prosecutions for crimes involving a sex offense against a minor must be commenced withing 7 years, however, that seven year period does not begin to run until the alleged victim reaches the age of 16 or the crime is reported to law enforcement (whichever occurs earlier).  Interestingly, Georgia law also provides that when such a crime is reported to law enforcement, the agency “shall promptly report such allegation to the appropriate prosecuting attorney.”  Thus, such a rule would have required the Syracuse police department to report the Bernie Fine allegations to the district attorney when they were first made in 2002.

The Statute of Limitations is a fundamental principle that has been a part of our criminal justice system since its inception.  The one obvious reason for it is so that individuals do not have to endlessly be looking over their shoulders wondering if they’ll be prosecuted for some misdeed committed years or even decades ago.  Another reason for it is that it protects the falsely accused from having to defend themselves from allegations so remote in time that it makes it impossible to to prove their innocence.  For instance, how would Bernie Fine be able to establish an alibi for where he was on some vaguely described weekend in 1984?  How would he identify or locate witnesses who may have been able to corroborate his defense?

Attorneys in Georgia, and throughout the country, who defend individuals accused of sex offenses are opposed to eliminating statutes of limitations in child molestation cases for these very reasons.  We are clearly in the minority though and high profile cases always seem to be the catalyst for major changes in our criminal laws.  Only time will tell whether the public outcry here will lead to the changes that are being so desperately sought.


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