DNA and Cold Cases: Indicting John Doe

By Caleb Groos on October 21, 2009 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Could technology effectively do away with statutes of limitations? Prosecutors in a growing number of states are indicting the DNA of criminal suspects when they don't know whom to charge. This allows them to prosecute the suspected perpetrator if they later identify the DNA, even if that doesn't happen until long after the statute of limitation would normally have run out.

Many types of crimes in many states are subject to statutes of limitation. This means that prosecutors must bring charges within a certain number of years, or the suspect cannot face prosecution. Sex crimes in many states have statutes of limitations, as do many property crimes such as car theft, burglary and robbery.

To avoid having the clock run out, prosecutors in some places use what are called "John Doe indictments" or "John Doe warrants." This means issuing an indictment or a warrant to arrest a suspect whose identity authorities do not yet know. In jurisdictions allowing this, the general rule is that police or prosecutors must put forth a description of the suspect sufficient to provide reasonable certainty of being able to identity the person later. With each person's DNA being unique, prosecutors argue that no better description of a suspect could be imagined.

Indicting someone's DNA means the case can be put on hold until prosecutors are able to find out whose DNA they've got.

As reported by CNN, prosecutors in California have been doing this since at least 2000. As described by the New York Times, New York, Arkansas, Michigan and Delaware also use DNA to indict unknown suspects in sex crimes.

New York began doing this in 2003 with its John Doe Indictment Project. At the time, many sex crimes, including rape, had a 10 year statute of limitations in New York (that has since changed). The Times reports that New York prosecutors have secured 117 DNA indictments, which have led to 13 convictions along with 5 pending prosecutions. In 99 of the cases, authorities still do not know whose DNA they have indicted.

With ever expanding databases of DNA to check against, authorities hope it's only a matter of time before matches turn up. Though privacy rights advocates object, DNA is increasingly collected not only from convicts, but also from arrestees (not proven guilty of anything) in many jurisdictions. This makes it more likely to eventually connect a name with anonymous DNA indicted in 2003 or 2004.

The downside? Criminal defense advocates argue that statutes of limitations exist for a reason -- because people's memories fade. They worry that the passage of time will make it tougher to mount a defenser, and that flaws in DNA collection, storage and testing may result in errant prosecutions years after the crime.

For more on the DNA collection practices in your state, see ProPublica's interactive map on state DNA collection.

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