Thursday, September 25, 2008

Getting Around the S of L

The Dallas County D.A.'s office leads the nation in the number of men exonerated of their crimes based on DNA evidence, but the freeing of an innocent man does not necessarily mean that the guily will be punished:

He raped a 12-year-old girl at knifepoint more than two decades ago. Now police say they know who he is.

But he won't be arrested. He won't face a judge or jury. He won't even need to apologize.

Dewayne Douglas Willis, 47, will complete his sentence for unrelated theft and burglary charges next month – and walk out of prison a free man.

Dallas police say he is one of six men recently linked to rape cases from the 1980s through DNA profiles or fingerprints. But authorities say it is impossible to prosecute them because of an old statute of limitations.

"He doesn't even get a slap on the wrist, and as far as I'm concerned, he should be in prison for the rest of his life," says the victim, now 36 and living in Frisco. "He took something from me that I will never, ever get back, and for that there is no justice."

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.

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.

The limitation made sense at a time when many of these cases were solved on the basis of witness or victim testimony. After time memory fades, witnesses, victims and perpetrators die or move away, and some victims may simply want to get on with their lives without being dragged through memories of a horrific crime. But because of the "ex post facto" clause of in Article I of the U.S. Constitution, men and women cannot be prosecuted for crimes after the expiration of the period provided for by the statute of limitations as it existed at the time. There is simply no way to prosecute criminals like Willis above. Of course, it's possible that listing someone as a sex offender without the benefit of a trial could be violative of due process requirements of the Constitution as well, but it's still good to see Watkins attempting to tackle this problem in some manner. Justice does not simply require the freeing of wrongly convicted men and women, but also the fair punishment of the guilty.

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