- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 28, 2003

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — The state attorney general said convictions will be overturned or pending charges dropped for about 800 accused child molesters in California after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that statutes of limitations cannot be erased retroactively.

The Supreme Court on a 5-4 vote Thursday overturned the nation’s only law designed to ensnare molesters who committed their crimes decades ago. Lawyers said the ruling nullifies most pending clergy sex- abuse prosecutions in California.

The ruling, California Attorney General Bill Lockyer said, “will allow child molesters to escape prosecution simply because they preyed on our children years ago.”

Charges in at least eight cases already have been dropped in Santa Clara County, Assistant District Attorney Karyn Sinunu said. Two defendants had pleaded guilty, and another case involved a former Jesuit brother accused of molesting a boys’ home resident in 1969.

“Prosecuting people for alleged violations that occurred, at least in one priest’s case, 50 years ago, is illegal in this country,” Larry Guzin, a Los Angeles attorney defending about two dozen California priests under investigation. “Never before has a state gone that far.”

The California law was challenged by 72-year-old Marion Stogner, accused of molesting his two daughters when they were children in their home in Antioch, a San Francisco suburb. His prosecution was pending on the high court’s decision.

The case was closely watched because of sex-abuse problems in the Roman Catholic Church, but it also has implications for terrorism and other crimes.

Justice Stephen Breyer, writing for the high court, said the Constitution bars states from revising already-expired legal deadlines, which California did in 1994 for molestation cases.

Critics argued it was unfair to change the rules after witnesses are dead and evidence lost. Supporters of deadline changes, including the American Psychological Association, contend that child molesters aren’t usually exposed in a timely manner because children are fearful of reporting the assault or don’t know it is a crime.

Mr. Stogner’s daughter, Margaret Vaughan of Mississippi, said the Supreme Court’s ruling made her “feel like I’ve been molested all over again.”

“I was 4 years old and I’m supposed to know the law on this?” she said. “I didn’t even know what was happening to me was wrong.”

Mr. Stogner, who lives on the Gila River Indian Reservation near Chandler, Ariz., denied the accusations. “Now I can die happy,” he said.

Statutes of limitations vary by state and by crime, in some instances as short as one year for minor wrongdoing to no limit for murder.

Some states have extended their deadlines for filing charges in sex crimes, but California took the exceptional step of retroactively changing the time limit. Charges must be filed within one year after the victims file a police report.

Prosecutor Dara Cashman believed she had a good case against Mr. Stogner. “We felt very comfortable and confident with our case,” she said.

Mr. Stogner, a retired paper plant worker and Korean War veteran, was charged in 2001 with molestations that began almost 50 years ago. His daughters said their father began molesting them when they were younger than 5 and the abuse lasted years.

The Bush administration had argued that a ruling against California would threaten the USA Patriot Act, which retroactively withdrew statutes of limitations in terrorism cases involving hijackings, kidnappings, bombings and biological weapons. The Justice Department said it was reviewing the decision.

Russ Heimerich, a California Department of Corrections spokesman, said the department was reviewing the records of its 160,000 prisoners to determine which inmates should be released or get reduced sentences.

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