Indiana is one of only a handful of states that limits the amount of time to five years that rape victims have to report the crime. Efforts to expand the time frame, or eliminate it altogether, have failed to gain any traction in the legislature.
But a grassroots effort spurred by a rape survivor could be the catalyst lawmakers need to revisit the issue.
Jenny Wendt Takes On A Cause
Jenny Wendt stood outside the statehouse this week, looking up as blue and white balloons got smaller and smaller in the sky until they disappeared.
The balloon release is held each year to kick off sexual assault awareness month, but this is the first time Wendt participated. Until recently Wendt kept her rape a secret.
“I told one or two friends,” Wendt says. “I told one, I didn’t get much support. Other than that I dealt with it on my own.”
The rape happened almost a decade ago when Wendt was a student at Indiana University – Purdue University Indianapolis.
“I didn’t report it because I didn’t have any evidence to prove it was this man,” Wendt says. “I had no DNA evidence. Therefore I knew if I went to court I would have a hard time. Rather than go through the court, I chose not to. Since I was immersed in college I wasn’t ready to be that person in the media who was raped by her TA.”
Since then, she’s tried to move on with her life. She graduated from nursing school and was living comfortably in Greenfield when earlier this year, her phone rang:
“I heard the message from a detective at the college I attended,” Wendt says. “I got her message on a Friday so I couldn’t talk to her until Monday. I knew exactly what it was about. I didn’t sleep all weekend. I was anxious to know how she knew about the rape.”
The detective knew the details because she’d gotten them first-hand from Wendt’s attacker.
In January, the man walked into an Indianapolis police station and confessed to the rape.
He wanted to turn himself in and Wendt said she wanted to press charges.
But it wasn’t that simple – Indiana has a five year statute of limitations, so Wendt’s attacker couldn’t be charged.
He was a free man.
“No one should be able to walk into a police station and tell them of a horrendous crime they committed,” Wendt says. “He confessed. He brought it up. I was living my life. Once I heard this I decided I needed to do something about it. And that’s when I decided to eliminate this five year statute.”
Why Statutes of Limitations Exist
One of the arguments behind the statute of limitations is that years after a crime, it’s difficult to find reliable evidence and someone may end up being wrongly convicted of a crime.
Tim Morrison, Adjunct Professor at the Maurer School of Law and a former federal prosecutor, says the statute of limitations provides a means by which to determine the quality of evidence.
“The longer that the case pends, witnesses forget,” Morrison says. “Evidence gets misdirected. It’s not stored correctly. Memories fade. All of those things can happen and the quality of the case evidence that you can present is lessened by the effects.”
Morrison also says the statute of limitations is the only protection a defendant has to ensure their constitutional right to a speedy trial, and provides and impetus for law enforcement to work quickly to solve a crime.
The statute of limitations is not a constitutional doctrine or a judicial doctrine, so Morrison says it is ultimately up to legislators.
“They call the shots and everyone will adjust,” he says.
Gauging Support For New Legislation
That’s why Wendt has started an online petition to get rid of the statute. Within two weeks of putting it online she has more than 2,000 signatures.
Anita Carpenter, CEO of Indiana Coalition Against Sexual Assault, says her organization tried to change the statute of limitations in the past.
“We proposed legislation two years ago that didn’t go anywhere,” Carpenter says. “The thought was we didn’t want to introduce it this legislative session, we had other things focused on. The plan was, before all of this with Jenny, was originally to revisit the statute of limitations so the timing was perfect.”
With the Indiana Coalition Against Sexual Assault, Wendt is beginning work with the legislators and the governor’s office.
“I’m hoping to give a voice to all of those who couldn’t use their voice,” Wendt says. “And anyone interested in making a change.”
The statute of limitations is five years or less in seven states. It’s six to nine years in 11 states, and 10 to 20 in 12 states. In 20 states there is no time limit for filing rape charges.
“My original goal was to make it 20 or more years,” Wendt says. “To go from five years to elimination was something I thought was ridiculous to ask. Now I realize it’s not. Now I’m pushing all the way because 20 or more states have.”
Nancy Stockton works with college students who are the age Wendt was when she was raped. Stockton says there’s a problem with underreporting – fewer than half of rape victims ever report what happened – and removing the statute or eliminating it would encourage more survivors to come forward.
“They can feel re-attacked, re-victimized in some ways,” Stockton says. “‘Maybe it was somehow my fault after all, or I have some blame in the situation because the system at large is not responding to what happened to me.’”
Carpenter says her office has met with about a half dozen legislators and the governor’s office.
She says there is bipartisan support for a proposal to revisit the statute of limitations.
Jashin Lin contributed to this report.