Statute of Limitations Impedes Child Justice

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In October 1989, 11-year-old Jacob Wetterling, his brother, and a friend were riding their bikes near their homes in St. Joseph, Minnesota, when a masked man kidnapped Jacob at gunpoint. He ordered the other boys to run into a nearby wooded area, threatening to shoot them if they looked back.

For nearly 27 years, no one knew what had happened to Jacob, despite a massive search effort. Recently Danny Heinrich, a 52 year old man being held on child pornography charges, provided officials details about Jacob’s remains, which were subsequently recovered in an undisclosed location in central Minnesota.

Heinrich had been named a person of interest in the case because DNA obtained in a 1990 case linked him to the abduction of a 12-year old boy in Cold Spring, Minnesota in 1989. Though Heinrich’s DNA was matched to Jacob’s recently-tested clothes, he can no longer be charged in that case due to an expired statute of limitations.

Statues of limitations, which vary from state to state, were initially imposed to help protect those accused of crimes. The rationale was that as more time passed between the commission of a crime and its prosecution, the more outdated evidence could become, thus making it less reliable. But that was before DNA collection and analysis became standard.

If DNA evidence is reliably collected and analyzed, and can link accused perpetrators to crimes, shouldn’t it win out over imposed statutes of limitations, allowing prosecution of perpetrators to proceed? I believe it should.

In the case of Heinrich and Jacob, DNA evidence links Heinrich to the abduction and assault of the 12-year old. Given that Heinrich is not someone new to investigators in this case, there may be other corroborating evidence linking him to Jacob’s assault. And then there are Heinrich’s child pornography charges which could be considered relevant. With all these variables at play, why should society give someone like Heinrich—or any other child abuser—a pass?

Every year thousands of children are victims of physical, emotional, and sexual abuse, as well as neglect. We adults have a responsibility to protect children’s rights and ensure their welfare. To legislators, lobbyists and anyone else who cares about justice for child victims: Isn’t it about time we take action to truly put children first? Let’s review and update all statutes of limitations so victims of crime can pursue justice.




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