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Even as the legislative session nears its final week, Sen. Jeff Steinborn remains optimistic that a bill to extend the time limits for prosecuting certain child sex crimes may succeed.
A previous version of the bill was vetoed by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham last year over a clerical flaw that would have given some victims even less time to report the crime than they have under current law.
A financial analysis of the bill states that it would establish a single deadline for prosecuting most cases involving criminal sexual penetration of a minor, replacing the current system where deadlines vary depending on the circumstances of the crime. If enacted, the bill would allow prosecution until the alleged victim turns 30 in most cases.
Steinborn, D-Las Cruces, said it would not apply to first-degree criminal sexual penetration of a minor, which has no statute of limitations.
Defense attorneys worry the change could make investigations difficult to conduct and verdicts harder to reach.
But 18-year-old Abrianna Morales, who was sexually abused as a teenager, says the judicial process, while difficult, can be a source of absolution and healing. Morales is the founder and president of the Sexual Assault Youth Support Network and she approached Steinborn about making changes.
“It’s important to give people the choice to come forward at a later time in order to allow for proper healing, and ability to gain financial and emotional independence from parents and family that may actually be abusers,” she said.
In an interview, Steinborn said that prosecuting offenders in child sex cases is a way to protect other potential victims.
Jennifer Burrill of the state’s Criminal Defense Lawyer’s Association said that extending the statute of limitations in these very serious cases can make them harder to defend and prosecute.
“Especially because these cases are based on childhood memories that could be inaccurate, access to other fact witnesses and physical evidence is crucial to the fair administration of justice,” Burrill said. “The proposed changes will reduce criminal cases to verbal disputes, leaving juries with little if any physical or scientific evidence to consider.”
The financial analysis of Senate Bill 97 states that statutes of limitation are intended to ensure that convictions are based on evidence that has not deteriorated over time. It states that charges resulting from the bill would be older than cases charged under current law, which could mean they have less evidence, and would also probably mean they were less likely to be resolved via plea agreement and would instead head to trial.
In an interview, Steinborn said that, given the bill’s substance and the fact that it moved through the entire system last year, he believes that it still has a chance. The bill is awaiting a hearing with the Senate Judiciary Committee. It would have to win approval in both the Senate and House before Feb. 20 in order to make it to the governor’s desk for final approval.