Lawmakers are debating getting rid of the deadline to bring forward claims of sex crimes against children following a high-profile case in Miles City where — after the statute of limitations expired — a former athletic trainer admitted sexually abusing high schoolers for years.
State law permits felony prosecutions of child sexual offenses to be brought up to 20 years after the victim turns 18, up from the 10-year limit observed prior to ratification of Senate Bill 30 in May 2017. Misdemeanor prosecutions must be brought within five years of the victim turning 18. House Bill 109, introduced by Rep. Mary Ann Dunwell, a Democrat from Helena, would remove the statute of limitations on both types of prosecutions entirely.
“There should not be a clock on kids when it comes to justice,” Dunwell said Wednesday.
The state House Judiciary Committee heard the bill at Wednesday’s meeting, where Kristen Newby, a Helena resident and the daughter of former Miles City high school athletic trainer James “Doc” Jensen, testified. Jensen is the target of a civil lawsuit filed in 2018 on behalf of 31 plaintiffs who allege that Jensen groomed them and others for abuse during his decades-long employment as an athletic trainer at Custer County District High School. They filed a civil lawsuit because the statute of limitations prohibited a criminal case.
Newby said she believed “a system that was set up to protect [Jensen] more than it was set up to protect the students” helped her father escape prosecution.
“And I think that this law is also protecting him,” Newby said. “I can’t speak to his intentions, but I don’t think it’s a coincidence that he waited until right at the statute point just to contact victims just to further torment them.”
Prosecutions of “deliberate, mitigated or negligent homicide” are exempt from the statute of limitations in Montana.
Jensen’s employment with Custer County District High ended in 1998. He admitted in a Sept. 21, 2018, interview with the Billings Gazette to some of the sexual offenses alleged in the civil case filed that day, but denied having any sexual contact with boys after 1998.
The bill applies to offenses committed on or after the bill’s date of passage and for past offenses for which the statute of limitations has not yet expired.
“I just really think that he was able to manipulate so many people that a lot of them were well into adulthood before they even realized that he wasn’t a doctor and that the things that he was doing weren’t a thing,” Newby said. “To then have to make that realization, come to terms with it and then finally stand up and be told ‘you waited too long, if you would have just come to us a year ago or six months ago we could’ve helped you, but you waited too long,’ that’s just a shame. I hope to see change.”
Rep. Shane Morigeau, a Democrat from Missoula, will introduce a similar bill this week that would remove the statute of limitations in civil cases of child sexual abuse. The bill, House Bill 202, will be heard in the House Judiciary Committee on Friday.
“We need to be clear on one thing: protecting children and families in Montana is not a partisan issue,” Morigeau said in a Wednesday press conference announcing both bills.
John Heenan, a Billings attorney representing the 31 Miles City plaintiffs in the civil case, called any statute of limitations set in place for child sex crimes “an effort by those that enact it to protect child molesters” at the Wednesday conference.
“The statute of limitations in the context of sexually abusing children is a compromise,” Heenan said. “On the one hand you have the interests in protecting children. On the other hand you have the interests in protecting child molesters and pedophiles.”
A related bill from Morigeau to be introduced later in the week would change the law to say elementary or high school students are incapable of consenting to sexual intercourse or contact in a school setting.