Thursday, September 25, 2008

Dallas DA seeks help in old DNA-linked rape cases

September 25, 2008

Houston Chronicle-Houston, TX

Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins wants sex-offender status given to rape suspects identified through DNA evidence in cases that are too old to prosecute.

Watkins seeks such a remedy in part because of the looming release from prison of a man on charges unrelated to a sexual assault authorities believe he committed 25 years ago.

Dallas police say Dewayne Douglas Willis, 47, is one of six men recently linked to rape cases from the 1980s through DNA profiles or fingerprints, The Dallas Morning News reported Wednesday. Authorities say it is impossible to prosecute them because of an old statute of limitations.

A statute of limitations on rape cases was in effect in 1983 when a 12-year-old girl was attacked at knife point in her Dallas home, the case Dallas police believe involves Willis, who declined interview requests from the newspaper. DNA evidence revived the case earlier this decade.

The statute, designed to protect defendants from the erosion over time of favorable evidence, was scrapped in 1996 after DNA testing began. Still, the Constitution requires that defendants be prosecuted based on the laws at the time of the alleged offense.

One legal expert says listing the suspects as sex offenders is a dangerous idea.

"Because if they could, it's left to the discretion of the prosecutors who they decide to label as a sex offender, even though the person hasn't been convicted of it," says Fred Moss, a law professor at Southern Methodist University and a former federal prosecutor. "That strikes me as being the worst possible solution. None of us are safe then."

Dallas faces the issue because, unlike most counties nationwide, it has preserved DNA evidence for decades. And though a nation-leading 20 prisoners have been exonerated as a result, that evidence is incriminating people as well.

Watkins also floated the idea of having the cases noted in the criminal histories of the suspects. He said he plans to present lawmakers with a package of ideas to address the issue.

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

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