Saturday, March 29, 2003

Supreme Court takes on California's molestation law

Supreme Court takes on California's molestation law
Associated Press - March 29, 2003

SAN FRANCISCO, California (AP) --The Supreme Court has agreed to hear arguments on a challenge brought by a 72-year-old man accused of abusing his two daughters in California nearly 50 years ago, a case that could affect child molestation prosecutions nationwide.

Marion Stogner, a retired paper-plant worker who police say created a home life so dysfunctional that his two sons became molesters themselves, has long denied abusing his children.

His attorney, Elisa Stewart, says the accusations by his daughters are so old that she can't mount a defense in a case that landed in court just five years ago.

In most states, statutes of limitations would keep Stogner out of criminal court. But in 1994, California began allowing child molestation prosecutions years after legal deadlines to file charges had passed. Hundreds of people have been convicted under the law the Supreme Court justices are expected to review on Monday.

Statutes of limitations are a bedrock principle of American law. Usually between three and 10 years, they protect the accused from the consequences of charges grown stale with age, conceived from unreliable memories or based on lost or dead witnesses.

The Supreme Court has never ruled on, or been asked, whether states can retroactively nullify criminal statutes of limitations, according to the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

Defense attorneys fear a ruling against Stogner could prompt states to rewrite criminal laws to prosecute long-expired cases. The Justice Department has already asked Congress to adopt rules retroactively nullifying statutes of limitations that govern not only child molestation cases, but child abductions and federal cases involving DNA evidence.

The case has other sweeping ramifications. The Bush administration has urged the court to uphold the law out of concern that a ruling absolving Stogner may weaken some provisions of the USA Patriot Act, which retroactively withdrew statutes of limitations in terrorism cases involving hijackings, kidnappings, bombings and biological weapons.

Stogner is accused of molesting his daughters between 1955 and 1964, allegations that came to light many years later when police investigating his sons persuaded the women to talk.

One daughter, now 42, says the assaults happened so routinely she had no idea it was wrong until years later.

"I was like, huh, this doesn't happen in other families," she said. "We were brought up as if it was normal, like brushing your teeth, going to church and being molested."

Stogner's daughter, who agreed to an interview with The Associated Press on the condition that her name and other personal information not be disclosed, said she and her sister were too afraid to speak up about the years of alleged abuse by her father and at least one brother.

She said her father began molesting her when she was barely tall enough to see the top of his bed. When she became a teenager and gathered the courage to leave her home in Antioch, a San Francisco suburb, she said the last thing her father told her was "I'm going to kill you."

"I believed him," she said. "We lived in constant fear growing up."

State legislatures began increasing statutes of limitations for new molestation crimes in the 1990s, as research showed young victims often delay reporting sexual abuse because they are easily manipulated by offenders, are traumatized or have difficulty remembering.

California took the biggest step, allowing prosecutors to pursue "significant" molestation cases no matter how old, as long as there was evidence beyond the victim's word. Charges must be filed within a year after the victims -- in many cases now fully grown adults -- finally file a police report.

The lead detective on the case, sheriff's detective Chris Forsythe, said the Supreme Court has the perfect case to decide the issue. Cases like these, he said, are "why the California Legislature enacted this law."

Forsythe uncovered the allegations about Stogner in 1997 while investigating Stogner's son Randy, who was eventually convicted of molesting his two stepdaughters. Stogner's other son, John, has been convicted of molesting children at "Randy's Ranch," his brother's daycare center.

"I created a flow chart just to keep track of it all," Forsythe said.

Los Angeles defense attorney Don Steier, who is representing a dozen California priests facing criminal charges in old molestation cases, said defending against such charges is exceedingly difficult. "How am I supposed to defend these cases or find witnesses that can recall that far back in time?" Steier asked.

His cases, like Stogner's, are on hold pending the high court's decision, expected by June.

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