Former St. Louis priest Thomas Graham was sentenced last year to two decades in prison for sexual abuse that occurred more than 25 years earlier.
On Wednesday, Graham's lawyers asked the Missouri Supreme Court to toss out that sentence, saying Graham was unjustly convicted under a 1969 law that has since been rendered at least partially unconstitutional.
Now, the high court must determine not only the fate of Graham, but also potentially the legal prospects of other cases in which allegations of sexual abuse surfaced years after the alleged crime.
Robert Haar, an attorney for Graham, told the court that Graham's conviction is at odds with more than 100 years of legal precedent. For decades, he said, the statute of limitations has set time limits for bringing forth criminal charges.
The only exception, Haar said, are in cases such as murder, in which a sentence of death is under consideration.
"This is a prosecution that for more than a century was understood to be barred by the statute of limitations," Haar told the high court.
Graham was convicted under a 1969 sodomy statute. While the law has since been significantly modified, it would have been in force in the late 1970s, when the sexual abuse occurred. At the time, the law contained no deadline for prosecution.
Graham's accuser did not approach prosecutors until 2002. The former priest was convicted three years later, after a court ruled that he could be tried under the old law.
Shaun J. Mackelprang, an assistant state attorney general, told the court that the lower court properly had applied the law to Graham's case.
He said the statute of limitations does not apply to the case, or other serious crimes in which the accused can face a life sentence.
But Judge Richard Teitelman expressed some discomfort with allowing old cases to be brought forth, unless murder is involved. He said cases such as sexual abuse can involve "he-said, she-said" arguments that are difficult to reconcile years later. "The evidence is a lot more difficult to obtain," Teitelman said.
Much of Wednesday's oral arguments focused on the 1969 sodomy law and how it ought to be regarded in light of a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision. The court ruled that a Texas law banning sodomy between consenting adults was unconstitutional.
Mackelprang said the U.S. Supreme Court case had no bearing on the Graham case. "There's never been an argument that this was consenting behavior between adults," he said.
But Haar said his client wasn't given a chance to establish whether consent was involved. Instead, he said, the broad 1969 sodomy law was improperly applied to the more narrow circumstances of Graham's case. He said his client had a right to be tried under a constitutionally valid statute.
"These are very emotional cases that test our conviction to the rule of law," Haar said. "But if the rule of law means anything, it means that you don't make it up as you go along."