- Associated Press - Wednesday, February 27, 2019

HELENA, Mont. (AP) - Montana lawmakers are proposing a bipartisan bill that would end the statute of limitations for prosecuting sex crimes committed against children and extend the window for filing lawsuits against the perpetrator or others.

“There shouldn’t be a clock on justice,” said Democratic Rep. Shane Morigeau, who is carrying the bill. “When a victim of childhood sexual abuse comes forward, it is important that the doors of justice are open to them - both criminally and civilly.”

The House Judiciary Committee voted Wednesday to introduce the bill, which combines the intent of three other bills that sought to prevent cases similar to recent ones that couldn’t be prosecuted because state law bars felony prosecution of sexual offenses against children 20 years after the victim turns 18.

Republican Rep. Bill Mercer, a former U.S. attorney for Montana, said an important element of the bill requires county attorneys to report to the attorney general information about child sexual assault investigations and prosecutions. The attorney general would report the data to the Legislature to help lawmakers understand the scope of the problem and the government’s response to such reports, Mercer said at a news conference.

“We definitely want to have the ability in the criminal justice system to prosecute someone and through this legislation we’ve eliminated the statute of limitations for criminal conduct, but at the end of the day if we don’t have a system that ensures there’s going to be an effective response, the problem will be we’ll have victims - that if we had an effective response initially - would not have existed,” Mercer said.

The committee’s bill would extend from age 21 to age 27 the time by which victims of child sexual abuse have to file a lawsuit seeking damages. It retains a provision that allows people to file a civil claim within three years after they discover or reasonably should have discovered they suffered harm from sexual abuse as a child.

Morigeau said he would continue to fight to extend the statute of limitations for lawsuits closer to when the victim turns 52, the average age at which people disclose childhood sexual abuse.

The recent cases that frustrated Montana prosecutors include one involving a former athletic trainer at Custer County High School in Miles City who has acknowledged sexually abusing student-athletes from the late 1970s to 1998 under the guise of improving their athletic performance. Reports said he contacted some of his victims via social media shortly after the statute of limitations ran out.

James “Doc” Jensen has since agreed to plead guilty to federal charges alleging coercion and enticement. A hearing is set for March 4. The state also has charged him with possessing child pornography investigators reported finding on his cellphone.

In another case, the Montana Supreme Court -relying on a 2003 U.S. Supreme Court decision - said the state could not prosecute a man whose DNA matched evidence collected after an 8-year-old Billings girl was raped in 1987 because the statute of limitations had run out before the DNA match was made. The U.S. Supreme Court earlier this month declined to reconsider its 2003 ruling.

Attorney General Tim Fox urged Montana lawmakers to repeal statutes of limitations for child sex crimes, saying no offender “should find comfort in running out the clock.”

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