Time tolls for legal action in most cases but murder

Many people know there's no statute of limitations for murder, and that prosecutors can charge someone no matter how much time has passed.

Cold case detectives in southeastern Connecticut in recent years solved several homicides that were more than a decade old. One of the oldest cases involved the beating and strangulation death of Bertha Reynolds in 1993. Her daughter, Irene Reynolds, was charged with murder 17 years later, in 2010, when a witness who was reinterviewed provided new information. 

The statutes are intended to protect defendants, ensure timely pursuit of criminal charges or civil damages and ensure evidence is preserved. But when it comes to murder and a handful of other crimes deemed too serious not to pursue, all bets are off.

In addition to murder, statutes of limitations also do not apply to crimes designated "Class A" felonies in Connecticut, including aggravated sexual assault of a minor, in which a weapon is used or implied, is carried out by two or more persons or results in a serious injury or disfigurement.

Also exempted are first-degree kidnapping, first-degree arson, home invasion and employing a minor in an obscene performance. But in general, the state has a year to bring charges for misdemeanor offenses, which are considered less serious and are punishable by up to a year in prison. The state has five years to prosecute felony offenses, which are punishable by more than a year in prison.

This past February, State's Attorney Michael L. Regan released a letter explaining why he wasn't signing arrest warrants for four Norwich Free Academy officials police alleged were aware that former assistant coach Anthony Facchini allegedly was involved in illegal sexual relationships with students. Regan said the one-year statute of limitations for the misdemeanor offense of failing to report the crimes to the Department of Children and Families had started when the failure to report arose in April 2017 and expired in April 2018.

Leaving Connecticut to run out the statutes of limitations won't work if the state is intent on prosecuting someone. The time period is paused, or stops "tolling," if a person charged with crimes flees knowingly. The New London state's attorney's office in 2013 prosecuted a car salesman who had been arrested in 1993 and charged with bilking customers. Manfred Rieder had sailed to Canada and avoided detection by authorities until he was picked up 20 years later by immigration officials.

Other sections of the laws that determine time limits for criminal prosecutions or civil court actions are trickier, and could be changing if the General Assembly passes proposals prompted by the steady flow of people who continue to come forward decades after they say they were sexually assaulted as children by Catholic clergy members.

At a public hearing in Hartford last month, victims spoke publicly of their abuse for the first time and urged the Judiciary Committee to approve a "An Act Combatting Sexual Assault and Sexual Harassment," which would enable them, for a period of time, to sue the church even after they reach age 48, which is the current cutoff. The bill also proposed extending or eliminating statutes of limitations for criminal prosecution in child sexual assault cases.

But the section of Senate Bill 03 that would have provided that relief appears to have been written out between the public hearing on March 28 and the committee vote on April 12 to approve the bill. As written, the bill doesn't help clergy victims who cannot bring a civil lawsuit, according to attorney Lincoln Woodard, president of the Connecticut Trial Lawyers Association. The CTLA had approved the bill as originally written.

"This is very different than what was proposed in the original bill," Woodard said. "It was certainly disappointing, from the victims' sake, to see the language that came out on the civil side. We were made aware of it only when we read the contents of the bill that came out of committee."

Woodard said there is still time to change the bill, as it is being debated by the Senate and House. He said the trial lawyers association also would like to extend the statutes of limitations for minors who suffer birth injuries that are not obvious when the child is young and for youths who suffer brain injuries, such as a concussion or chronic traumatic encephalopathy.

Most civil lawsuits must be filed within two or three years of the injury date, but sometimes people don't know they have a negligence claim until it's too late, or nearly too late.

Enough time to investigate?

Statutes of limitations are one of the first things attorneys consider when deciding whether to take a case.

"You need to know how much time you have to investigate a case and file the lawsuit," Woodard said. "The statute of limitations really is a steel curtain. Once it's closed, it's a complete bar to the case."

"A person might come in with a medical malpractice case for a missed cancer diagnosis on a radiology film that was interpreted two and a half years ago, but you don't find out you have cancer until you become symptomatic two and a half years later," Woodard said.

Senior Assistant State's Attorney Theresa Anne Ferryman, who prosecutes sexual assaults and other major crimes in New London Superior Court, said her office has developed a chart for quick reference when reviewing a criminal case. Ferryman said she goes to the actual law on limitation of prosecutions, Connecticut General Statute 54-193 through 54-193B, before signing an arrest warrant.

"The part that the public doesn't necessarily realize, just because they don't work with it, is that the statute that's in place at the time of the offense is the one that governs," Ferryman said. "That is a huge limitation, so to speak, with an event that happened in the past." 

The date to remember for prosecutors of child sexual assault in Connecticut is May 23, 2002, according to Ferryman. On that date, the statute of limitations for sexual offenses involving children went up to age 48, which is 30 years after the person reaches "the age of majority," or age 18.

Prior to that date, sexual assault charges had to be brought within two years after the victim reached age 18 or up to five years from when police or prosecutors were notified.

Ferryman said prosecutors only realized later that the statute did not apply retroactively.

A 2012 Connecticut Appellate Court decision, State v. Brundage, affirmed that the statute applied only to sexual assaults that occurred after May 23, 2002.

As a result of the appeals court decision, a New London judge in 2013 dismissed charges brought against a school official who had been charged with having illegal sexual contact with a middle school student in 2000 and 2001.

Memories can fade

Ferryman said the statutes of limitations are less of a problem than people think, because without DNA evidence, it's hard to criminally prosecute a sexual assault case that is decades old.

Older crimes often are difficult to prove beyond a reasonable doubt, and survivors and victims are sometimes disappointed when sentences are more lenient than they had hoped.

Irene Reynolds, who was charged with murder 17 years after her mother's 1993 death in Norwich, was able to plead no contest to a reduced manslaughter charge in exchange for a 30-month prison sentence and five years of probation.

State's Attorney Regan said at the time that he may have had a hard time proving the murder charge to a jury. He said the memories of key witnesses had faded over time, and the state medical examiner who had handled the case had moved to Thailand and did not want to return to the United States to testify.

The victim's husband, who had long been considered a suspect in his wife's death, complained that people serve more time for larceny but said he was glad the case had been resolved.

k.florin@theday.com

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