In New York City, investigators are turning to DNA evidence as a means for solving cases of rape long after the fact. Used for years as a means of overturning wrongful convictions, a $500,000 federal grant is now funding investigations by the Manhattan and Staten Island district attorney’s offices, the police department, and the city medical examiner’s office into cases of homicide and sexual assault long considered closed. These investigations use DNA evidence as an essential tool for finding perpetrators.
At this point, prosecutors have secured 117 indictments of DNA samples in rape cases, linked 18 of those profiles to specific people, and obtained 13 convictions, either through trials or negotiated pleas. Of the 117 rape indictments, one has been appealed, but the state’s Appellate Division upheld the prosecution. The success of using DNA in rape cases has led New York City officials to take the lead and expand the use from serious, violent crimes to non-violent crimes such as serial car theft. Other states have had success using this strategy as well:
In Sacramento, Calif., a deputy district attorney, Anne Marie Schubert, said the strategy of indicting DNA is applicable not only to sexual assault cases.
“If you have a guy, a bank robbery person, and you know it belongs to the suspect, or a guy goes in and beats up an old lady and leaves his blood behind, you can do it in cases like that, where there is a statute of limitations,” Ms. Schubert said. “It is a tremendously powerful tool that allows us to protect the rights of victims.”
In 2003, the John Doe Indictment Project under the Bloomberg administration was the first focused effort seeking to preserve the ability to prosecute rape suspects in cases where the statute of limitations was near. The statute of limitations, which was lifted in 2006, had set a 10-year time frame for prosecution when a suspect’s whereabouts or identity were unknown.
Opponents have raised several concerns about lifting time limitations on charging suspects, asserting that the passage of time can impede the ability to defend oneself as memory fades and both evidence and witnesses become more difficult to locate. Additionally, in a resolution against John Doe DNA indictments, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers said that DNA samples can degrade over time and that errors in the “collection, handling and storage of DNA sample” can lead to wrongful prosecutions.
However, officials believe that any concerns are outweighed by the certainty of genetic evidence. John Feinblatt, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s criminal justice coordinator, stated that currently the state requires taking DNA samples from those convicted of any felony and 35 types of misdemeanors and believes that that New York should be taking DNA from all convicted criminals as well as from all arrestees, as is done in federal cases.
For the victims, the discovery of old DNA evidence can provide closure. Natasha A. was attacked in 1993 when she was a 20-year-old college student and received a call in 2003 that biological evidence had been recovered on a staircase landing near the roof of her building. This was six months before the previous statute of limitations would have expired. After a 2007 trial, Victor Rondon was convicted of her attack. Natasha A. said it comforted her to imagine the culmination of her saga giving solace to victims timed out of such opportunities by the old statute of limitations.
“The crime that Victor Rondon committed was against me, but it was also against the people of New York,” she said. “This is a man who committed a crime and got away with it, and may have continued to do it throughout his life, thinking he could get away with it and creating more victims.”