Genetic Technology Powerful New Anti-Crime Weapon
By David Yepsen, Special to Stateline
DES MOINES -- Iowa appears likely to join the growing list of states extending the statute of limitations in rape cases to make better use of new genetic technologies in law enforcement.
DNA profiles of suspects -- genetic fingerprints -- enable law enforcement officers to solve more cases, say lawmakers. They want to give prosecutors more time to develop those cases. Lawmakers are also considering legislation to require more prison inmates to give blood samples that can be DNA profiled in order to build a data base of lawbreakers.
"This is the most important criminal justice piece of legislation we will do this year," said state Rep. Charles Larson, the Republican who heads the Iowa House Judiciary Committee. "There's almost no more damaging offense than sexual assault. Victims live with it for years and it effects them psychologically and emotionally. It's incredibly difficult for many of them to deal with it."
He said by extending the statute of limitations, more suspects will be convicted as DNA evidence obtained in the case matches with DNA evidence collected in other cases.
"This is one more thing we can do to help bring closure to this for the victim. To have the perpetrator go unprosecuted is difficult for a rape victim," he said. He said the drive to extend the statute is drawing support from many victim-rights groups and supporters. The move to lengthen statutes of limitations is drawing support from a wide spectrum of lawmakers, from get-tough conservatives to the leading woman in the Iowa Legislature.
"If it gives the victim any comfort, it's worth extending the statute of limitation," said state Rep. Minnette Doderer, a Democrat.
Iowa law currently sets a three-year statute of limitations in most rape cases. It is five years in the case of sexual assault of a minor. State lawmakers are working on a bill to extend that limit to ten years.
"Three years is a pretty short period of time," said Larson, a former prosecutor. Statutes of limitations were established in law long ago, he said. The thinking at the time was that memories of witnesses to a crime would fade or other evidence would grow cold making it difficult to obtain reliable convictions.
But the growing collection of DNA evidence by law enforcement agencies around the country means the nation is building a stockpile of information that might help solve other cases, he said. Many rapes are committed by serial offenders and a rapist convicted in one state might be the same person who committed similar crimes elsewhere.
According to the New York Times, the statute of limitations in New York is five years and discussions are underway in that state about extending it. The paper also reports that Florida, Nevada and New Jersey have abolished limitations in sexual assault cases. New York City recently began DNA testing of all rape evidence and has amassed 1,400 samples into its database. Recently police identified a man being held on a murder charge as the prime suspect in a 1998 rape, thanks to DNA evidence.
The paper reports the police in New York have 16,000 boxes of evidence - one for each unsolved rape case - and that 12,000 of these cases will be sent to a private laboratory for DNA profiling. The results will be put in databases where it can be matched against DNA evidences taken from suspects in other cases.
"There's no question that we are going to get some hits," police commissioner Howard Safir told the Times.
Iowa's Larson said DNA evidence is so accurate it may also enable prosecutors to exonerate suspects whose genetic profile doesn't match the evidence left with the victim.