Wednesday, September 24, 2008

When DNA evidence accuses after the statute of limitations runs out

The preservation of biological evidence has not only led to a remarkable string of DNA-based exonerations in Dallas, it's also helping police solve cold cases in violent crimes, even where the statute of limitations has run out. Reports the Dallas News: ("DNA links rapes to men where statutes of limitations have expired," Sept. 24):

It's an issue Dallas must face because, unlike most counties nationwide, it has preserved DNA evidence for decades. And though 19 prisoners have been exonerated as a result, that evidence is incriminating people as well.

Dallas police are taking a second look at hundreds of old rape cases in light of advancing technology. That leaves officials grappling with how to handle the newfound suspects.

If they can't be charged, Dallas police and District Attorney Craig Watkins would like to require them to register as sex offenders, and to have their deeds noted in their criminal histories.

"This is all new," Mr. Watkins says. "We're going into uncharted territory." ...

The statute of limitation on rape in Texas spanned only five years in the 1980s. Such laws protect the rights of defendants in situations where time has washed away evidence that could exonerate them. People die, memories fade, records disappear.

Because of the certainty brought by new technology, Texas' statute of limitations for rape was eliminated in 1996 for cases with suspect DNA. But the U.S. Constitution says those accused of crimes in the past can only be held accountable based on the laws in place at the time.

While I think the Lege might be receptive to Watkins' idea to enter DNA-identified suspects into the sex offender registry, my educated guess would be that the federal courts would not let that stand without actual convictions to back up the entries. Moreover, I'm unconvinced the sex offender registries work as advertised thanks to research showing they actually increase recidivism for those on their rolls, so for my money it doesn't sound like Watkins has struck upon the right solution, yet, though I understand his frustration.

Along with the string of exonerations in Big D, these cases show why evidence preservation can be important even when it may not prove anything at the time. Dallas' practice of saving old biological evidence not only has exonerated the innocent but identified the guilty. Who knows what new technologies may exist 20 years from now that might provide a similar, future window on innocence and guilt based on re-examined evidence in today's cases?


Anonymous said...

Dear Mr. Henson,

I know this is off topic but do you have any knowledge of what happened during the Great Depression way back when and how it effected Texas Prisons? I'm writing a paper for school and my friends dad who works at the juvenile program (youth commission) said I should ask you since you are well educated on Texas prison issues. I'd appreciate any help you could point me to sir.

Thank you,

Pfugerville HS

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Todd, offhand there are several historical texts referenced at the Texas Prison Museum bookstore.

The prison system was centralized and 'modernized' during that period from the pseudo-for-profit model it'd previously operated under. Since you're near Austin, the historical materials are at the state archives, as well as inventories of earlier records. It's right downtown next to the capitol.

Also, the main reform group of the era in Texas was the Texas Committee on Prisons and Prison Labor, so researching them might be an angle to pursue. Besides the state archives check the Austin History Center and the Barker History Center at UT-Austin.

Also, I'll bet there are some TDCJ exes trolling around reading these blog comments who know a lot more sources than me or who could recommend a good book or two, perhaps somebody else can point you in the right direction.

Be sure to pass along your paper when you're done, I'll be interested to see what you come up with. Suerte!

Anonymous said...

Back on topic:

Shouldn't we eliminate the statute of limitations for Rape/Aggravated Rape?

With DNA we can nail the offender decades later.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

They already did, 10:41, see the quoted DMN article declaring, "Because of the certainty brought by new technology, Texas' statute of limitations for rape was eliminated in 1996 for cases with suspect DNA."

These are older cases, many from the 1980s, before DNA testing existed and the law was changed.

Anonymous said...

Regarding non-convicted on the sex offender registry: Ohio has a law permitting "civil" sex offenders to be subject to registration, community notification, and all other restrictions. All it takes is a finding by a civil court judge in cases where the statute of limitations has run out. To my knowledge, it has not yet been tested in the courts.

The courts may not have a problem with it. After all, the overwhelming majority of courts have found no punitive effects from registration, notification, mandatory reporting, implicit curfew, residency restrictions, location bans, and so forth.

Anonymous said...

Give me a break. If some one made a mistake years ago and has led a clean life up to now, you guys want him to register as a sex offender? Give me a break. Christ taught us to turn the other cheek and to forgive. While I dont condone violence or rape, I cant condone revenge for revenges sake. If some one has not come to the attention of alw enforcement for many years then let sleeping dogs lie. Plain and simple. The perp willhave to live with his actions every day for the rest of his life, and life David Hicks in San MArcos one day he may come clean, but not if he will ahve to register.

Anonymous said...

If some one has not come to the attention of alw enforcement for many years then let sleeping dogs lie. Plain and simple.

Tell that to the woman who has been through it. I'm sure she will feel much better.

As far as the sex offender registry, what I don't like a bout it is that it does not specify what the crime was. I'm not so interested in a he said she said thing as I am in a crime against children or violent rape by a stranger. Actually the child or violent offender should never see the light of day again.