Charging your DNA with a crime

Wednesday, August 27th 2003, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

Technology is putting a new wrinkle in crime fighting. Some prosecutors are now charging DNA samples with crimes even if they don't have a suspect who matches the sample.

News on 6 crime reporter Lori Fullbright explains how it works. It's being used primarily in rape cases that are close to the statute of limitations. Prosecutors file charges against the DNA before the deadline and if there's a suspect found years later that matches the DNA, he can still be prosecuted. It’s a policy loaded with ethical and legal questions.

DNA is used as routinely as fingerprints to put criminals behind bars as well as get people out of prison who've been wrongly convicted. But in those cases, the person being accused has been identified. This new plan would allow prosecutors to file charges against an attacker's genetic code, even before a suspect has ever been identified or arrested.

Tulsa County's DA office agrees with the idea and plans to do use it here. Tulsa County DA Tim Harris, "I think it is justice to go ahead and do it this way, otherwise, we can use DNA to exonerate a suspect, but, not to convict them just because the statute of limitations has run?"

Others argue that skirting the statute of limitations makes it harder for suspects to defend themselves because evidence gets lost and witnesses die or forget many details. While it's true that DNA is much more reliable than an eyewitness, especially as time passes, just having DNA at a scene doesn't mean a person is guilty of a crime. Defense attorneys say this is just one more example of taking away citizens' rights. Defense attorney Pat Williams, "I was there one day and left some DNA, some substance. And, they come and get mine but, not his. I had nothing to do with a crime but 15 years later, I'm charged with a crime. I don't think so. It's not right. The statute of limitations has a purpose and to eliminate it in this fashion is dead wrong.”

Experts also say DNA samples are only as a good as the person who collected it at the scene and the lab folks who process it and they say, that leaves a lot of room for error. Prosecutors argue that science and medicine are always ahead of the law and this is just a case of catching up. And they say it's a matter of justice for victims that people should pay for their crimes, whenever that happens to be.

It makes one wonder if a fingerprint found at a crime scene could be charged with a crime until they match it with a person, with national fingerprint and DNA databases, we're likely to see more of this type of prosecution, rather than less.