2019 Legislature: Bills revise statute of limitations for sex crimes

Rep. Mary Ann Dunwell, D-Helena, watches as 11 people testify in support of her House Bill 109 during a House Judiciary Committee hearing on Wednesday, Jan. 16. The proposed law removes the statute of limitations on child sex crimes. No one testified against it. (Tim Pierce/UM Legislative News Service)

(UM Legislative News Service) A slew of bills introduced in the Montana Legislature would revise the statute of limitations for sex crimes.

House Bill 109, which would eliminate time limits for child sex abuse cases completely, drew 11 proponents and no opponents during the House Judiciary Committee hearing Wednesday. The bill is carried by Rep. Mary Ann Dunwell, D-Helena, one of a group of Democratic lawmakers sponsoring the package of six bills that deal with the issue.

John Heenan, an attorney from Billings, represents 31 survivors of child sex abuse from Miles City, where retired high school athletic trainer James Jensen admitted last year to sexually abusing students for years. Heenan said because of the time limit, they could only bring a civil case against him.

“I think it’s so important we don’t have a statute of limitations,” Heenan said. “Where pedophiles and child molestors can circle a date on a calendar and know they can get away with it.”

James Jensen’s daughter Kristen Newby spoke in support of the bill Wednesday, saying survivors of sexual abuse usually don’t come forward until they are adults.

“He was able to get away with his crimes for a very long time because of a system that was set up to protect him more than it was set up to protect the students,” she said.

Thirty-seven states have already lifted the statute of limitations on child sex crimes.

Three bills revising statutes of limitations are still in draft form. But House Bill 188 and House Bill 202, sponsored by Rep. Kimberly Dudik and Rep. Shane Morigeau, are scheduled for committee. Both bills cover the extension of the statute of limitations for civil cases.

Tim Pierce is a reporter with the UM Legislative News Service, a partnership of the University of Montana School of Journalism, the Montana Broadcasters Association, the Greater Montana Foundation and the Montana Newspaper Association.