Stopping the Countdown on Crime, Punishment, and Guilt by Abolishing Statute of Limitations

Stopping the Countdown on Crime, Punishment, and Guilt by Abolishing Statute of Limitations

Jinyoung Seok, MJIL Staff Member

A South Korean couple was recently arrested for murder of the woman’s husband. The couple smuggled to China in 1996 after murdering the husband for discovering their affair, and no one knew their whereabouts until they arrived in Korea twenty years later. Not knowing that the statute of limitations for first-degree murder was recently abolished, the couple thought that they could resume a normal life in Korea as the original time limit to prosecute their crimes expired in 2011.[1] They also did not realize that the statute of limitations temporarily ceases to run if an offender stays abroad for the purpose of escaping criminal punishment.[2] In other words, the clock did not tick forward for the couple ever since 1996, and they now await justice for the crimes they committed twenty years ago.

South Korea has recently removed the time limit on prosecuting murderers, paving the way for further investigation of infamous cold cases. In 2015, the National Assembly passed an amendment in the criminal procedure law, abolishing the 25-year statute of limitations on first-degree murder, which was initially extended from fifteen years in 2007. The removal only applies to unsolved first-degree murder cases whose statute of limitations had not expired by the time the legislation was enacted and does not extend to second-degree murder, manslaughter, and other kinds of death resulting from accidents.

Statute of limitations first appeared in early Roman law to limit actions to recover landed property and restricts the time within which a cause of action may be brought based on the date when the offense occurred.[3] It is designed to promote justice by protecting “individuals from having to defend themselves against charges when the basic facts have become obscured by the passage of time,”[4] where they are not called on to resist a claim when “evidence has been lost, memories have faded, and witnesses have disappeared.”[5]

Countries around the world adopt this legal system differently, especially in criminal prosecutions. Germany abolished its statute of limitations on premeditated murder in 1979. In France, although the statute of limitations for murder is set at ten years, there is a system of suspension—the suspension ceases when investigations are curtailed, but the period is reset to zero in light of fresh evidence and of a resumption in investigation—making it difficult for a lapse of the period of the statute of limitations to arise in many cases. Italy has no statute of limitations for crimes punishable by life imprisonment while China has a 20-year limit on crimes punishable by death. Japan is another country that recently abolished its 25-year statute of limitations for crimes of murder punishable by death.

The U.S. follows the British common law that does not have a statute of limitations on murder; a murder charge can be filed even decades after the alleged killing has occurred.[6] Having no limitation period on murder allows law enforcement to occasionally solve and prosecute cold cases. This has become especially pertinent with the continuing advances in DNA evidence, which can pinpoint a murderer many years after the crime. For example, the killer of 1957 murder of two El Segundo police was located in 2003 and sentenced to two consecutive life terms with the advances of computerized finger-printing technology.[7]

The movement towards abolishing or extending statute of limitations gains wide public support, but the arguments raised by the proponents of statute of limitations should not be ignored totally. They assert that the system is needed for fair, accurate trials since there is a risk that evidence could deteriorate with time and that the accused would be deprived of sufficient opportunity for defense. They also claim that an increasing number of unsolved cases could burden police as time passes. As a result, indictments raised after a considerable period of time has elapsed should be undertaken with extreme care as there is an increased danger of false charges arising with old evidence.

In the end, should justice have an expiration date? By abolishing statute of limitations, justice may be delayed but may not be blind at least to the fears of the families of the victims as the countdown no longer exists.

[1] In South Korea, the statute of limitations for crimes punishable by death was originally fifteen years until 2007.

[2] See HYEONGSA SOSONGBIP [Code of Criminal Procedure] art. 253(3) (S. KOR.).

[3] See Statute of Limitations, Black’s Law Dictionary (10th ed. 2014).

[4] Toussie v. U.S., 397 U.S. 112 (1970).

[5] Order of R.R. Telegraphers v. Railway Express Agency, 321 U.S. 342, 349 (1944).

[6] See 18 U.S.C. § 3281. Current federal law contains a single statute prescribing a general period of limitations, as well as several statutes that provide longer periods for specific offenses. See also 18 U.S.C. § 3282(a).

[7] See Richard Winton and Steve Berry, Man Sentenced to Life in Two 1957 Police Murders, L.A. Times (Mar. 25, 2003),