[OUTLOOK]Time passes, but murder is foreverThe statutes of limitations on the murder of the Daegu boys who went missing after “going to catch frogs” and on a serial killer in Hwaseong run out on Saturday and April 2, respectively. There is a big chance that these two cases that enraged a nation will never be solved. We are facing an outrageous situation where even if the actual culprit steps forward and confesses, “I did it,” we will not be able to punish the person.
These are not the only cases in which the culprits of serious crimes would never be punished because the statue of limitations had passed. Since Lee Geun-an, a man who committed hideous tortures while never revealing his face, lived in hiding for 11 years, the statute of limitations for many crimes he allegedly committed ran out before he was caught, and so the punishments for these crimes were left out of his sentencing. It has also been revealed that high-ranking authorities in the Agency for National Security Planning, the predecessor of the National Intelligence Service, were involved in the Susie Kim murder case in the 1980s, yet they were able to avoid legal judgment.
The statute of limitations is a system that terminates the government’s right to prosecute people after a certain period of time after the crime was committed. It comes from Roman law. It is based on the logic that after a certain amount of time passes, it is hard to hold a fair trial because evidence disappears and the people involved in the case are unable to remember the facts clearly, and that the time cools both the victim’s and society’s heated emotions over the crime. At the same time, it exists to protect the basic rights of the people in case the government punishes people without justification. This is why many countries of the world adopted this system after the French Revolution, making it part of modern legal systems.
When the code of criminal procedure was enacted in 1954, Korea regulated the statute of limitations ranging between one to 15 years depending on the type of crime, using Japanese law as a guide.
However, the provision on the statute of limitations in our law has a few problems. First of all, there is a statute of limitation for practically every crime, creating a hole in the system of punishment. Nevertheless, there have been very few precedents in which the statute of limitations has been eliminated or stopped through a special law, such as the Special Law on the Statute of Limitations of Crimes that Destroy the Constitutional Order and the Special Law on the May 18 Democratization Movement, legislated in 1995.
Another problem is the short period of the statute of limitations. The statute of limitations for death-penalty crimes, such as murder, is set at 15 years. In comparison, Germany extended the period of statute of limitations for premeditated murder to 30 years in 1969, and got rid of it altogether when it revised its criminal law in 1979. In 2004, Japan extended the 15-year deadline set for prosecuting death penalty crimes by another 10 years. The United States has different laws for different states, but many states do not have an arraignment deadline for murder.
However, the statute of limitations of all crimes must not be extended at once, because that would seriously damage the stability of the law and cause a great deal of chaos. And there is also the possibility that controversy will erupt, as punishing people by extending the statute of limitations could be deemed unconstitutional as the Constitution does not permit laws to be enforced retroactively. Extending the prosecution deadlines for economic crimes or miscellaneous white-collar crimes might end up hampering corporate activity and the lives of the common people. Therefore it is most desirable to limit the statute of limitations only for brutal crimes.
A draft revision to the code of criminal procedure that extends by 20 years the statute of limitations on vicious crimes was presented at the National Assembly last August, but deliberation on the bill has been held up.
We will most likely not be able to punish the culprits in the cases involving the Daegu boys or the Hwaseong serial killer because even if the bill passes, it will not apply it to cases in which the statute of limitations has already run out. A chill runs down our spine to think that the culprits of the murder cases are somewhere out there, laughing.
Scientific investigation techniques such as DNA analysis are highly developed these days. Evidence no longer disappears just because time has passed since the crime was committed. A fair trial has become possible now, and that is why we urgently need to extend the period of statute of limitations for brutal crimes. We must catch and punish criminals if we are to avoid seeing another real-life version of the film “Memories of Murder.” That is the only way we will be able to wipe the tears of the surviving family members of the crime victims, who have buried their children and family in their hearts.
* The writer is a senior editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Shin Sung-ho