Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Rape survivor works to change law, abolish the statute of limitations in rape cases

By SHAUN HITTLE, The Lawrence Journal-World

Cindy Hillebrand, 61, knows — thanks to DNA evidence — who grabbed her off a street in downtown Topeka at knifepoint 28 years ago and repeatedly raped her.

His name is Joel L. Russell, a convicted sex offender currently doing time in a Kansas prison for several other sexual assaults.

But because of the current five-year statute of limitation on rape cases in Kansas, there's nothing prosecutors can do about Hillebrand's case.

Future victims, however, may get justice in similar cases, as Kansas lawmakers in both the House and the Senate last week unanimously passed bills that abolish a statute of limitations in rape and sodomy cases.

Kansas is among 10 states that now require a rape to be prosecuted within five years, but under the new legislation, Kansas would join 20 other states that allow rape prosecutions at any time.

The bill also allows for prosecution of a sexually violent crime to begin within 10 years of when a victim turns 18. Current law allows prosecutors to file charges within a year of when DNA evidence identifies a suspect in a sex crime.

The House approved its bill on Friday, one day after the Senate approved its own legislation. Each chamber’s bill went to the other. The content of the two measures are identical.

Hillebrand, who traveled from out of state to speak to lawmakers in favor of the legislation, found herself in the role of advocate following a Journal-World series focusing on her case.

"I've been working so hard on this," said Hillebrand, who's been working with the Kansas Coalition Against Sexual and Domestic Violence, which helped craft the legislation.

After a 2011 Journal-World article on Joe Jones, a Topeka man who was wrongfully convicted and later exonerated by DNA evidence in the 1985 attack on Hillebrand, Topeka police reopened the investigation.

DNA testing in 2012 identified Russell as a suspect in Hillebrand's case. An arrest warrant for Russell was issued, but prosecutors had to drop the case because the five-year statute of limitations in the case had run out decades ago.

The new bill won't help in older cases such as Hillebrand's, but could open the door for prosecutions in future rape cases.

Frustrated that Russell couldn't be brought to trial in her case, Hillebrand focused her attention on ensuring other offenders won't slip through the cracks.

Working on the bill, and seeing it passed, has helped Hillebrand in her own recovery, ongoing for nearly three decades.

"It's the only way I'll get any justice on this," she said.