Charges are being dropped and convictions are being thrown out against hundreds of Californians after the U.S. Supreme Court last week struck down a 1994 state law that erased the statute of limitations in decades-old molestation cases.
The high court's decision has angered victims and prosecutors and alarmed some communities. Unlike molesters who have faced justice and served their time, those being released do not have to register under Megan's Law as sex offenders.
"The pedophiles are laughing. They just got a "get out of jail free card' and it disgusts me," said Bill Pelzl of South San Francisco, whose alleged molester, a former priest, was freed last week.
California's law was designed to ensnare molesters who committed their crimes decades ago. Some states have extended their deadlines for filing charges in sex crimes, but California was the only state to retroactively eliminate the statute of limitations, allowing victims to come forward years, even decades, after the alleged abuse. The former statute of limitations was six years.
But last week, the Supreme Court said the Constitution bars states from revising expired legal deadlines.
Now, California prosecutors are scrambling to figure out who needs to be freed and who can be tried for other crimes. An estimated 800 people _ including priests, housewives and the winningest high school basketball coach in state history _ were charged under the 1994 law. It is not clear how many were convicted or pleaded guilty and how many are behind bars.
Lake County prosecutor Susan Krones said she had no choice but to dismiss her case against Ronald Bunn, accused of raping a girl during the early 1980s when she was 14 and 15.
David Clohessy, executive director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said the court ruling will hurt children the most.
"The Supreme Court is asking kids to do the impossible," he said. "Kids can't quickly come forward against adults who molest them. No one can take action against a careless or malicious surgeon when the patient is still in the recovery room because at that point you don't even know you've been hurt."