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Bill Cosby was recently charged in Pennsylvania with aggravated indecent sexual assault. During numerous radio commentaries I have been asked about the concept of limitation periods. Each US State has limitation periods. This can be viewed as a bar to a victim’s voice for an offence she or he could not report due to social stigma, embarrassment or emotional trauma. In Canada there are no time limitations. I have defended cases going back 40 years and was part of the Cornwall Public Inquiry that looked into why allegations of historical abuse were not prosecuted. There is no doubt that many victims of crime can be marginalized and vulnerable without a support system to help them come forward with abuse allegations.
However, from a fairness and fundamental justice perspective there are sound reasons why delayed disclosure of allegations can lead unreliable evidence and potential wrongful convictions. The passage of time errodes memories, confabulates facts and often eliminates a thorough investigation leading to no independent evidence. It is vital and that any crime be able to be reported and if a sufficient legal basis result in charges. That being said, robust research has shown that we must be very cautious about memories that date back years to decades and in historical sexual abuse cases, skilled examination of the evidence is required to protect against wrongful convictions and scrutinize any ulterior motives to fabricate allegations.
In Bill Cosby’s case, there are numerous complainants with strikingly similar allegations and serious admissions in his civil case that supports the prosecution’s theory. In this instance, Mr. Cosby has an uphill battle and the case has shed light on a legacy of abuse of women.