COLUMBUS, Ohio — A bill about to be introduced into the Ohio House would eliminate the statute of limitations in wrongful conviction cases.
Year after year, Ohio lawmakers vow to help victims of serious crimes, but they never actually done so.
Some victims spend decades thinking they got justice for a crime committed against them, but when new evidence proves the person sitting behind bars didn't do it — they are left without resources.
"Once the case is resolved and the convictions overturned, it's kind of, like, done," Jennifer Thompson said. "There was no place for crime victims to receive any support or help."
Thompson runs Healing Justice, a group making sure the wrongfully convicted are freed and helping survivors get closure.
This issue is personal. She was brutally raped 38 years ago Friday. A man, Ronald Cotton, was sent to prison. After more than 10 years behind bars, police told her they got it wrong.
"You've learned that an innocent person went to prison for something that happened to you, but also the guilty person had remained in the community committing many other crimes," she added.
Cotton met Bobby Poole in prison. Poole bragged to him that he raped Thompson, according to court records.
"The man who was responsible for my rape and a second woman that night went on to commit over 24 other violent crimes before he was ever caught," Thompson said. "And six of those crimes were first-degree rapes."
Once finding out Cotton had spent 11 years incarcerated for a crime he didn't commit, Thompson completely changed her life.
"I have been working in the world of wrongful convictions and criminal justice reform for over two decades," she said.
She finally met Cotton a few days after his exoneration and the two became unlikely friends — even writing a book together called "Picking Cotton" and advocating against eyewitness testimony.
"I often talk about how wrongful conviction is not a single shot — it's an explosion," she said. "And it leaves debris. Anybody who is it was hit by that shrapnel is going to be harmed and so we know that for every wrongful conviction, we've got hundreds of people that are harmed in the wake of these train wrecks."
Thompson and Cotton's story was one of the catalysts for a new bill in the Ohio Legislature. Democratic state Rep. Kristin Boggs, from Columbus, is planning to introduce a bill to eliminate the statute of limitations in cases where the individual is exonerated.
"It tolls the statute of limitations for that crime so that the victim and law enforcement have the opportunity to find the real perpetrator," Boggs said.
The bill would also award thousands of dollars in reparations to the victim or the victim’s family through the Crime Victims Fund. Currently, the statute of limitations for crimes like rape is 20-25 years.
"The person who is wrongfully incarcerated does the time for somebody else's crime, and even if we know who the person is that committed the original crime — it doesn't matter," the lawmaker said. "They don't ever have to face justice."
Boggs knows her bill only chips away a portion, but she is hoping her bill opens up the door for other bills eliminating statutes of limitations. This is an uphill battle.
"The truth of the matter is politics get in the way," state House Rep. Tavia Galonski, a Democrat from Akron, said. "I fully intend, during the 135th General Assembly to bring back my bills."
Galonski and state House Rep. Jessica Miranda, a Democrat from Forest Park, came together to propose House Bill 266. The bill would, among other provisions, modifies the statute of limitations for childhood sexual abuse.
Child sex abuse limitations end at age 30 in Ohio. H.B. 266 would extend the limitations until the victim reaches age 55. This would allow legal action against a perpetrator or an entity that negligently facilitated that sexual abuse.
"Democrats are leading the fight to ensure that all victims of rape and sexual assault receive justice by introducing legislation to eliminate the statute of limitations for sexual assault, remove the cap on damages for violent crimes, and close the marital rape loophole," Miranda said. "Protecting vulnerable victims of sexual assault and rape should not be a partisan issue. All sexual violence survivors, no matter the case or how much time has passed, deserve justice.”
For more than 15 years, lawmakers have been trying to change or improve the laws to better help victims.
"It is frustrating and inexcusable that the Republican leadership in the Statehouse continues to deny survivors of sexual violence justice," Miranda added. "Unfortunately, unaccountable politicians lead to out-of-touch views that do not represent the will of the people."
The Democrats' bill was introduced in April of 2021 and has not had a single hearing. In the 133rd General Assembly, H.B. 472, which would eliminate the statute of limitations for rape, had one singular hearing.
"The approach of making bits and pieces of legislation into amendments that might go into other bills so that as long as something becomes law, I applaud that and support it," Galonski said about the draft from Boggs.
Like Thompson said, there is a ripple effect.
"Especially in a situation where somebody has been wrongfully convicted, nobody believes that justice has been served in that in that situation," Boggs said.
The most impacted are the original victim of the crime, the wrongfully convicted individual who is now a victim and the community members who thought they were safer because the person that committed the crime was no longer a threat, Boggs added.
Law enforcement is also impacted because they stopped looking for the suspect after the innocent individual was incarcerated.
"The only person that benefits from somebody being wrongly accused is the person that actually committed the crime," the Democrat said.
Despite advancements in science and DNA evidence, a rape occurring in Ohio wouldn't
be able to be reopened if past the statute of limitations.
"If we lived in a culture that truly care about crime victims and survivors, there would not be a statute of limitations and we would be absolutely committed to truth and transparency," Thompson said.
These bills are nearly always stagnant, despite no public opposition.
"Why do we have [a statute of limitations]?" Thompson asked. "That doesn't make any sense to me at all, because it's not like 20 years later, I now was not raped."
Attorney General Dave Yost’s team said he supports ending the limitations for rape and is awaiting the introduction of the bill. Gov. DeWine's team, Ohio Prosecuting Attorneys Association and the Fraternal Order of Police of Ohio all said they are anticipating the legislation.
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