Rape Victim Vows: 'We're Not Going Away'

Victims' advocates want all 50 states to lift statute of limitation on rape.

Feb. 12, 2009 — -- It is a harrowing story.

"I was raped when I was 12 years old," said a Texas woman who asked that her name not be used. "The man broke into our house, and beat me and raped me at knifepoint while my parents slept in the room next to mine."

So ended her childhood, and 25 years later, she still wrestles with the trauma of that horrific night.

Police investigated but the case went cold, until 2001 when her attacker was finally identified, thanks to DNA evidence. But he couldn't be prosecuted because the statute of limitations had expired.

Though it's too late to apply to this crime, victims' advocates want the 14 states that still have a statute of limitations for rape to change their laws.

Victim Tells Her Story

"I remember looking out into the hallway and seeing somebody walking up the stairs and I remember he said to me, 'Take off your shirt.' And I fell to the floor," the Texas woman said. "Out of fear, it's like my body just stopped working. I remember that I fell back onto the stuffed animals and I was clutching my stuffed animals."

She described her attacker to police as a black man with a gap in his front teeth. She also told police he tied her up, robbed her house and stole the family car. The sound of it stalling in the driveway woke her parents.

At the hospital the 12-year-old was so traumatized, she had to be sedated before physical evidence could be collected. Police investigated, but in a time before DNA testing, the case went cold.

"And all these years, it's like, wonder, wonder, wonder. Is he in prison? Is he alive? Is he dead?" the victim said. "And really, truly after about 25 years, you begin to feel like you don't matter. Like you have been forgotten about."

But the 1983 case was not forgotten. While investigating another crime in 2001, a cold case detective discovered that the Southwestern Institute of Forensic Sciences had been saving rape kits since 1981 -- preserved evidence could be examined with modern-day technology.

"No matter how old it is, they deserve everything that we got to give to solve their cases," said Sgt. Patrick Welsh, the head of the Dallas Police Department's sexual assault cold case program.

Fighting for Rape Law Reform

Using DNA, Welsh's team said they identified her alleged rapist as Dewayne Douglas Willis. Now 47, he's been in and out of prison for a string of burglaries.

"It's healing, you know, they have healed a hole in a little girl's heart. They have told her that she matters, and for that, I'm forever grateful," the Texas victim said.

But the statute of limitations had long passed, so Willis could not be charged for the crime. He couldn't even be registered as a sex offender. What's worse, he was about to be released from prison.

"It's greatly frustrating to me. The violence toward this young lady is terrible, just terrible and he can't be held accountable," Welsh said.

In Texas at the time of the attack, rape had to be prosecuted within five years for fear witnesses' memories and evidence would fade over time. But since DNA came into play, Texas and many other states have dropped the time limitations for prosecuting rape cases.

"I think it's unfair," said Dallas Police Department Lt. Sally Lannon. "If DNA is good to exonerate someone and that's good for a lifetime, and rightfully so if you have been wrongfully convicted, why shouldn't DNA be used on the other side, the flip side, to be able to hold people accountable for their criminal action?"

Fourteen states still have a statute of limitations on rape, and victims' advocates want to change that.

Meanwhile, one Texas state senator is considering introducing legislation that would allow men, such as Willis, to be listed on a sex offenders registry without a conviction. But this reform raises concerns in legal circles.

"As much as we feel sympathy for the rape victims, we also have to respect the law," said Southern Methodist University law professor Fred Moss. "The Constitution and procedural due process says we have to give this person a chance to rebut the allegations against them."

Willis was released from prison in October, and despite her fear that he is free, the Texas woman said she is speaking out for the sake of other victims.

"I want him to know, and I want the other men who have committed this crime to know, that we're not going to go away and this is important to us," she said. "We're not going to just let these men walk away without a fight. We've got to be fair to ourselves."

For more information or help, visit the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network web site at www.rainn.org.