SALEM -- Part of the public fury that grew over former Gov. Neil Goldschmidt's admission that he sexually abused an underage girl was that he could not be prosecuted for the crime -- the statute of limitations had expired long ago.
Now Oregon lawmakers are considering a change that would eliminate the time limit on when someone accused of abuse or assault of a minor could be prosecuted.
"I just think there is no rationale that we deny children the ability to seek justice later on in life," says Rep. Dave Hunt, D-Gladstone, who is pushing the proposed change in the law.
The proposal, contained in House Bill 3057, gets its first public hearing Monday and will likely generate a fight pitting prosecutors against defense attorneys. Some district attorneys say young sexual assault victims need extra protection. Defense lawyers say the change would make it far more difficult for people to make the case that they've been wrongly accused.
Oregon has a six-year statute of limitations on most sex crimes. However, the law allows a longer time period if the victim is under 18. In that case, the crime can be prosecuted any time before the victim turns 30, or within 12 years after the crime is reported to police or the Department of Human Services.
But even those extended time periods aren't always enough, says John Foote, Clackamas County district attorney.
"Child abuse is a lifelong event," he says. "It stays with people their whole lives. Sometimes society ends up paying for it. Sometimes the victim does."
The bill offers one more layer of protection if abusers understand they could be prosecuted long after the crime, Foote says. "When you're in the work we're in, protecting children, you realize these kids need all the protection they can get because the effects are so devastating."
Innocent defendants need protection, too, says Gail Meyer, lobbyist for the Oregon Criminal Defense Lawyers Association. Completely removing an already lengthy statute of limitations stacks the deck against them, she says.
In criminal cases, as opposed to civil ones, the defense has no right to depose witnesses, Meyer says. Most of the crimes fall under Measure 11's mandatory sentencing guidelines and it takes a 10-2 jury verdict to convict.
"Add that to a delayed report of 20, 30, 40 years, it's just too much," she says. "It just spells a disaster for justice."
Goldschmidt offers the most high-profile case in Oregon of a crime that went unreported until it was too late to prosecute. In May 2004, the former governor and Nike executive confessed that he had sex with an underage girl when he was Portland mayor in the 1980s. He kept the crime secret for years, in part by making payments to the victim as part of a court settlement.
Despite the criminal nature of his abuse, Goldschmidt faced no chance of prosecution. The bill Hunt is pushing would apply to offenses that occurred before or after the law's effective date, but would not allow prosecutors to open old cases.
Goldschmidt has since disappeared from public life, but community outrage hasn't let up. It flared again over reports of the recent death of his victim, and a story in The Oregonian in which the victim gave several interviews to former columnist Margie Boule that offered grim details of her abuse by Goldschmidt.
Hunt says the Goldschmidt case is far from the sole reason he introduced the bill. It's as much about reports of abuse within the Catholic Church and Boy Scouts as it is about Goldschmidt, he says.
Hunt's wife, Tonia Hunt, is executive director of the Children's Center of Clackamas County, which works with young abuse victims. As a result, he says, he hears stories on a daily basis about the terrible things that some adults do to minors.
"We want victims to come forward, whether they're still children or whether they're adults," Hunt says. "Ultimately, they're not going to heal or move on until justice has been promised and achieved."
It's interesting to note that a couple years ago here in Oregon when the statute of limitations was revised to it's current standing that the two groups who most vigorously opposed the legislation were the Roman Catholic church and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (the Mormons).