Metropolis: Wednesday February 13, 2003
Looking to Extend the Reach of Law

Norris’ accusers want statute of limitations lifted on child molestations.


Let’s pretend.

You’re a healthy, happy 12-year-boy on the edge of puberty. Maybe your parents are divorced. Maybe your dad died. Or maybe there’s nothing wrong with your dad, but a friend of the family takes a sudden interest in you. He takes you to ballgames, talks about your problems, or helps you with your swing.

Then your world goes black. Your “friend’’ reveals himself to be a predator instead.

He has you doing things you barely understand and certainly won’t discuss. Even if you talked, no one would ever believe the well-respected coach or priest or photographer who befriended you was capable of such betrayal.

Eventually, the abuse ends. You bury what happened. You try to get on with life, but something — shame or fear or confusion — holds you back. Maybe you get drunk, or get high. Maybe you stay that way for years. If you’re straight, you wonder if you might be gay. Maybe you marry and have children and have almost succeeded in forgetting when something cracks, and the memories pour back in.

What happened to you years ago, you learn, might have been a crime, and a serious one at that. The man who molested you could have gone to prison — but he’ll never be charged for what he did to you or face a jury of his peers. He’ll certainly never be convicted because you waited too long to come forward. The lawyers say what happened to you is “outside the statute of limitations.’’

If the accounts they have given to Tarrant County law enforcement are true, this make-believe scenario is the reality facing a group of men, some now in their 40s, who have come forward in recent weeks to accuse a prominent real estate broker and former diving coach of sexually molesting them decades ago. Their frustration has led some to conclude that the statute of limitations for sex crimes against children should be abolished, even as one Texas lawmaker proposed — in error, his office says — a change that would have made prosecuting such cases more difficult.

Wirt M. Norris, the 75-year-old real estate broker and former diving coach accused of molestation, has not been charged with a crime. But the Tarrant County Sheriff’s Department is investigating a complaint from a 20-year-old man, Will Hallman, who says that Norris molested him eight years ago. Hallman, who also has filed a civil lawsuit against Norris, is the only one of the accusers to complain of events recent enough to permit possible prosecution. Norris, who lives on Eagle Mountain Lake, has not commented on the allegation, but his lawyers have said the charges against him are baseless.

Michael Ware, one of Norris’ attorneys, doesn’t have an opinion what the statute of limitations should be. But, he said, “the thought of having to defend a citizen in criminal court on a 30-year-old ‘he said, she said’ allegation of sexual abuse seems fundamentally wrong.”

Largely due to the scandal in the Roman Catholic church, child molestation cases have become disturbingly commonplace across the country during the last year. The New York Times recently reported that the “crisis had spread to nearly every American diocese and had involved more than 1,200 priests and more than 4,200 victims during the last six decades.’’ A Suffolk County grand jury investigating the abuses, frustrated by its inability to return indictments in old cases, has asked New York lawmakers to eliminate the Empire State’s statute of limitations on some molestation cases.

According to the Tarrant County District Attorney’s office, Texas law since 1997 has given prosecutors until a victim’s 28th birthday to make a case against an alleged child molester — giving persons who claim to have been abused a full decade after reaching 18 to come to grips with what happened and decide whether to come forward. Older laws had allowed prosecution in more narrow windows — within 10 years of the offense, and before that, within five.

The current law, for instance, prevents prosecutors from pursuing complaints of abuse from men like Rolf Kaastad. Kaastad, now 41, has accused Norris of sexually molesting him during the mid-1970s — more than a decade outside the statute of limitations.

Kaastad said eliminating the statute of limitations is the only way to make sure that no victim is silenced by a technicality. “There’s no statute of limitations for murder and there never should have been, and there doesn’t need to be a statute of limitations for child molestation,’’ he said. “Every victim should have a voice, a powerful voice. ”

Rolf’s brother, Tim Kaastad, has begun a letter-writing campaign to area lawmakers urging repeal of the statue of limitations. He contends that it’s unfair to place the burden of testifying solely on Will Hallman’s shoulders when others are willing to take the stand.

“This is a terrible and completely unnecessary burden to place on this young man,’’ he wrote in a e-mail he said was sent to the Tarrant County legislative delegation. “Other, older victims, including my brother, who are far removed from the time and place of their victimization, and who are older and more able to cope emotionally with their victimization, are restrained by the statute of limitations from seeking sanctions.’’

Even if the law were changed to lengthen or eliminate the statute of limitations, it is not clear whether the change could be made retroactive or whether it would have any effect on the Norris investigation.

Not everyone, of course, agrees on the need for change. Even within the Tarrant County courthouse, opinion is divided. Jay Lapham, chief of the Crimes Against Children unit in the Tarrant County district attorney’s office, has prosecuted molesters for the last five years.

Lapham said he began to realize how many people don’t tell about having been molested when he started trying to pick juries. When prosecutors routinely ask prospective jurors whether they know anyone who was sexually abused, he said, it’s not uncommon to see hands raised all over the room. “After you’ve gone through enough of those, you realize how many people don’t tell,’’ Lapham said.

“In a sexual abuse case, nobody’s going to know but the child and the defendant. They may feel ashamed or embarrassed and not come forward,” he said. “I don’t think it’s an unreasonable request’’ to do away with the limitation. The DA’s office backed efforts to expand the statute to its current limit, he said.

The complaint against Norris is being investigated by Tarrant County Sheriff Dee Anderson’s office. Anderson said he sees no need to change the law. Victims who wait long periods of time before notifying police about being abused make “working and prosecuting a case extremely difficult,’’ Anderson said. “Someone who went 10 years — there’s a reason they didn’t come forward.’’

Whatever the disagreement may be among Tarrant County officials, no one has seriously suggested that the limitation be made more restrictive — as one state lawmaker had proposed until his office was questioned about a pending bill this week by Fort Worth Weekly.

State Rep. Miguel Wise of Weslaco introduced legislation that would narrow the window of prosecution from 10 years after a victim’s 18th birthday to 10 years after a victim’s 16th birthday. An analysis of the bill prepared by his staff claimed the rollback would actually “strengthen current law in Texas.’’ Questioned about the proposal, a staff member said the bill was based on misinformation and would be withdrawn.

“His intention was not to make it shorter,’’ she said. “He was trying to strengthen it but someone has strengthened it more.’’ The staffer said Wise had decided to withdraw the bill but would be open to discussing the possibility of eliminating the statute altogether. “I’m sure he would be willing to discuss ... those issues,” she said.

Two other men who allege they were long ago abused by Norris said this week that they, too, favor changes in the law that would allow the prosecution of old complaints.

One man, now in his 30s, paused from writing a statement to investigators this week to express his anger: “They said ‘statute of limitations,’ I almost hit them.”

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