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Long-ago molestation case tests statute of limitations

©Associated Press
March 29, 2003

SAN FRANCISCO -- An elderly man accused of molesting two daughters nearly 50 years ago, creating a home life so dysfunctional that his two sons became molesters themselves, is at the center of a Supreme Court challenge that could affect cases nationwide.

One of Marion Stogner's daughters, now 42, says his assaults happened so routinely she had no idea it was wrong until years later.

"I was like, huh, this doesn't happen in other families," she said. "We were brought up as if it was normal, like brushing your teeth, going to church and being molested."

Stogner has long denied abusing his children. His attorney says the accusations by his daughters are so old that she can't mount a defense in a case that landed in court just five years ago.

Stogner, a retired paper-plant worker, is accused of molesting his daughters between 1955 and 1964, allegations that came to light many years later when police investigating his sons persuaded the women to talk. In most states, statutes of limitations would keep Stogner, now 72, out of criminal court.

But California lawmakers in 1994 began allowing child molestation prosecutions years after legal deadlines to file charges had passed. Hundreds of people have been convicted under the law the justices will review on Monday, and a ruling against Stogner could pave the way for other states to follow suit.

Statutes of limitations are a bedrock principle of American law. Usually between three and 10 years, they protect the accused from the consequences of charges grown stale with age, conceived from unreliable memories or based on lost or dead witnesses.

Defense attorneys say Stogner should not be prosecuted because the U.S. Constitution prohibits bringing criminal cases to trial after legal deadlines expire.

The Supreme Court has never ruled on, or been asked, whether states can retroactively nullify criminal statutes of limitations, according to the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

The case has other sweeping ramifications. The Bush administration has urged the court to uphold the law out of concern that a ruling absolving Stogner may weaken some provisions of the USA Patriot Act, which retroactively withdrew statutes of limitations in terrorism cases involving hijackings, kidnappings, bombings and biological weapons.

Defense attorneys also fear a ruling against Stogner will prompt states to rewrite criminal laws to prosecute long-expired cases. The Justice Department already has asked Congress to adopt rules retroactively nullifying statutes of limitations that govern not only child molestation cases, but child abductions and federal cases involving DNA evidence.

"The decision in this case could affect the constitutionality of a recent act of Congress and constrict Congress' authority to enact similar legislation," Justice Department attorney John De Pue wrote the justices.

Stogner's daughter, who agreed to an interview with the Associated Press on the condition that her name and other personal information not be disclosed, said she and her sister were too afraid to speak up about the years of alleged abuse by her father and at least one brother.

"We lived in constant fear growing up," she said. She left her home in Antioch, a San Francisco suburb, when she was a teenager.

State legislatures began increasing statutes of limitations for new molestation crimes in the 1990s, as research showed young victims often delay reporting sexual abuse because they are easily manipulated by offenders, are traumatized or have difficulty remembering.

California took the biggest step, allowing prosecutors to pursue "significant" molestation cases no matter how old, as long as there is evidence beyond the victim's word. Charges must be filed within a year after the victims -- in many cases now adults -- finally file a police report.

Elisa Stewart, Stogner's attorney, said the charges against her client are so old that it's impossible to mount a defense. "You can't change the rules in the middle of the game," she said.

However, Contra Costa County prosecutor Mary Knox said that, without the 1994 law, "this family tragedy that's wrought by a child molester" could never have been righted.

Sheriff's Detective Chris Forsythe uncovered the allegations about Marion Stogner in 1997 while investigating Stogner's son Randy, who eventually was convicted of molesting his two stepdaughters. Stogner's other son, John, has been convicted of molesting children at "Randy's Ranch," his brother's day care center.

Stogner's two daughters were estranged and haven't spoken for 20 years, but both say their father abused them when they were children decades ago. Their accounts were graphic and similar. Both said their father would molest them, then say, "Don't forget to say your prayers" before he left them to sleep.

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