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Utah Supreme Court won't retroactively apply law dropping statute of limitations for sex abuse

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Posted at 5:02 PM, Jun 11, 2020
and last updated 2020-06-11 19:03:41-04

SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah Supreme Court has rejected a claim that the legislature reset the clock on the statute of limitations for some sex abuse lawsuits.

The unanimous ruling, issued Thursday, deals a blow to a woman's high-profile lawsuit against a retired federal court judge.

Terry Mitchell sued former Judge Richard Roberts, alleging that he sexually abused her when she was a 16-year-old witness in the high-profile murder case involving serial killer Joseph Paul Franklin. In 1981, when Mitchell alleges the abuse happened, Roberts was a prosecutor on the case.

He abruptly retired as chief judge of Washington D.C.'s federal court system the same day Mitchell filed her lawsuit. It wound up before the Utah Supreme Court over a dispute about whether the statute of limitations had expired. Mitchell was relying upon a recently passed law by the Utah State Legislature that would extend the statute of limitations.

The Court was asked to wrestle with the idea that it could be retroactively applied.

In its ruling, the Court declared, it could not.

"We hold that the Utah Legislature is constitutionally prohibited from retroactively reviving a time-barred claim in a manner depriving a defendant of a vested statute of limitations defense," Associate Chief Justice Thomas Lee wrote.

Justice Lee wrote the decision was not made lightly.

"We respect and consistently defer to the legislature’s judgment on the broad range of policy matters committed to its discretion. And we acknowledge the reasonable policy basis for the judgment the legislature made in seeking to revive previously time-barred claims asserted by victims of child-sex abuse. The devastating effects of child-sex abuse can span a lifetime. And as the legislature has indicated, it may take 'decades for children and adults to pull their lives back together and find the strength to face what happened to them' —particularly where (as is too often the case) 'the perpetrator is a member of the victim’s family' or a friend or confidant," he wrote.

But, the Court decided, the legislature's law could not be applied retroactively.

In an interview with FOX 13, Mitchell's attorney, Rocky Anderson, was outraged and said the Court relied on antiquated rationales.

"The way was cleared by the Utah State Legislature. They recognized the victims of child sex abuse are unable, sometimes for decades, to be able to confront their abusers. The legislature, for cases moving forward, did away with the statute of limitations," he said. "But for those who fall in the cracks like Terry Mitchell, who are abused before that legislation... now they're just out of luck. So they've been denied justice and their perpetrators will never be held civilly accountable for child sex abuse."

Roberts' attorney declined to comment. Anderson said they were exploring legal options as the case moves back to federal court for her civil lawsuit.

Mitchell has been speaking out about her experience, advocating for changes to how sex abuse victims are treated by police, prosecutors and the courts. She has also been pursuing a complaint against Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes' office, accusing it of providing Roberts with information she had brought to them. The AG's office has declined to comment on her claims in the past.

"Terry has had the system turn its back on her every step of the way," Anderson said.

Read the Utah Supreme Court ruling here.