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New N.J. Law Eliminates Statute of Limitations When DNA is Found

February 24, 2002
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New N.J. Law Eliminates Statute of Limitations When DNA is Found

by Jeffrey Gold, Associated Press

NEWARK, N.J. (AP) - Leave part of your genetic code behind at a crime scene in New Jersey, and you are never off the hook.

DNA evidence, in recent years used to exonerate the wrongly convicted, can now stop the clock on the statute of limitations for a wide range of crimes.

The new law, perhaps the only one of its kind in the nation, is a dream come true for prosecutors and a nightmare for defense lawyers.

It also could bring an avalanche of new samples to a State Police laboratory already struggling with a backlog.

The state's DNA exemption, which also applies to fingerprints, was signed into law with little notice Jan. 3, in the flurry just before Acting Gov. Donald T. DiFrancesco left office.

Before then, New Jersey prosecutors generally had five years from the day after a crime to charge somebody. There was no deadline for prosecuting murder or rape.

Under the new law, however, the clock does not start until prosecutors match DNA or a fingerprint with a person's name.

About a dozen states have similar DNA laws that apply to sex crimes, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The sweeping exception is a "remarkable departure" from the prior limits, said Russell M. Coombs, a professor at Rutgers Law School in Camden.

He said time limits were originally imposed because a trial many years after the crime would be hampered by faded memories, lost evidence and deceased witnesses. They also stem from a legal tradition of granting "repose" to innocent parties.

"That rationale has less force if we damn well know he's guilty," Coombs said, who added that the precision of DNA evidence is a counter to hazy recollections.

However, he noted that DNA merely shows that someone was at the scene, not that they committed a crime.

Union County Prosecutor Thomas V. Manahan said he intends to use DNA evidence to prosecute cases such as aggravated assault and robbery.

"With advances in technology, the law needs to recognize that law enforcement is able to prove matters many, many years after the event has occurred," said Manahan, president of the New Jersey Prosecutor's Association, which endorsed the measure.

"This statute is really to do away with what I believe to be an archaic statute of limitations when dealing with serious crimes," he said.

In addition to assault and robbery, the new law applies to crimes such as official bribery and causing widespread injury or damage.

Defense lawyer William H. Buckman, of Moorestown, said the new law dangerously undercuts longstanding practice.

"No one is going to be able to go back 10, 20, 30 years and determine where they were, their alibi, and exonerate themselves," said Buckman, a board member of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. "People can't reasonably defend themselves. Witnesses have moved or died. Evidence has been lost. Memories have faded."

"To expand it to so many lesser crimes, to have a criminal law without a statute of limitations, is not necessarily a wise thing, particularly when the law seems overbroad," Buckman said, noting that DNA at a crime scene could be left by many people with no connection to a crime.

State Police do not have an estimate on how many more samples will be tested because of the law, spokesman John Hagerty said.

The number could be significant. In 2000, New Jersey recorded 288 murders and 1,352 rapes, along with 17,086 aggravated assaults and 13,550 robberies.

The State Police DNA lab got 523 samples from local police last year more than twice the 221 submitted in 2000, said Thomas A. Brettell, the lab's chief forensic scientist.

Some 480 samples await screening to determine if they have any biological material that could contain DNA, while 247 that have been screened await analysis of their DNA, Brettell said in early February.

The process takes over a year. "We would like to do this in a 30-day period, but we don't have the personnel to do it," he said. About 10 more people would have to be added to the dozen in the DNA unit for that to happen, Brettell estimated.

In addition, the lab sends DNA samples from felons to a private lab to produce a genetic profile. Last year, some 2,900 offenders were added to the state database of offenders, which now has 7,400 profiles, he said.

Those profiles are shared with the national database, which has more than a half-million offenders on file, he said.

DNA samples taken at crime scenes are processed and then compared to these databases in an effort to find a suspect.

Semen and hair can provide DNA decades after collection if it is stored properly, and State Police have urged county prosecutors to check cold cases to determine if any might be solved through DNA analysis.

The State Police are seeking money to hire more scientists, and a sponsor of the new law, state Sen. Diane B. Allen, R-Burlington, said she would support that effort.

"It makes no sense to pass laws to make our criminal justice system more responsive without giving those involved the tools to do it right," said Allen, whose fellow sponsors were then-Sen. Louis F. Kosco, R-Paramus, and Assemblyman James W. Holzapfel, R-Ocean, who was Ocean County prosecutor from 1987-92.

A different view is held by state Sen. Bernard F. Kenny Jr., D-Hudson, one of four senators who voted against the measure in May. It passed the Assembly 76-0 in December.

"My concern was that we may be effectively abolishing the statute of limitations in criminal law. I just didn't think that enough thought went into the consequences of eliminating the statute," Kenny said recently.

"It is in the public interest to identify and apprehend people who are guilty of crimes. But the statute of limitations is in place because there are other interests that the public has, and one of them is to encourage law enforcement to be timely in their investigations; another is to have finality to investigations," Kenny said.

Another method of eliminating statutes of limitations is the "John Doe" indictment. Prosecutors in New York and Texas have used DNA profiles to obtain indictments against unidentified rapists before statutes of limitations expire.

A Delaware law enacted last year enables prosecutors to indict unknown criminal suspects, including sexual offenders and other violent criminals based solely on their DNA profiles.

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