“In the law of God, there is no statute of limitations.”
—Robert Louis Stevenson
“With DNA, the ability to find out a lot more with a lot less has increased our ability for identification.”
Ohio, like all states, has statutes of limitations that govern the period of time during which civil lawsuits, administrative actions and criminal charges can be initiated. Statutes of limitations are intended to allow for some certainty in people’s lives. That car accident you had in 1981? You can’t be sued for it anymore. Took a candy bar from a five and dime in 1956? Even if you admit to it now, you can’t be charged with it anymore.
Depending on the type of case, the statute of limitations will vary. Limitation periods are generally shorter for civil actions than for criminal cases. Among criminal cases they are shorter for minor crimes and longer for major ones. Some very serious crimes, like murder, have no statute of limitations at all, meaning that you can be prosecuted for them no matter when your identity is discovered or how long it has been since the crime occurred.
When the clock begins to run on the statute of limitations can also be a tricky matter. Generally, it does not begin to run until a crime or cause of action is actually discovered. In criminal cases where the victim is a child, the clock may not begin to run until the child discloses the crime to an adult or turns eighteen.
A person need not be convicted and sentenced before the statute of limitations expires. Rather, the prosecution of the person simply needs to begin before the time passes. In most serious criminal cases, that means that the case needs to be presented to a grand jury for consideration of whether sufficient evidence exists to bring a formal charge- an indictment- against the target of the investigation. If that charge is brought prior to the limitations period expiring, then the timeline is met and the prosecution may proceed.
In the past, this meant that if you had no idea who had committed a crime, you would eventually run out of time to identify and charge the wrongdoer. But advances in modern technology have provided a new wrinkle to that dilemma. Scientific advances now give us evidence that might lead to a later identification. In many sexual assault cases, the assailant’s DNA is identified and can be placed in a DNA database awaiting possible confirmation- either by the apprehension of a specific suspect or through a random match of someone arrested for another offense.
The intersection of science and the statute of limitations made for a notable case in Franklin County earlier this month. Faced with the approaching expiration of the twenty year statute of limitations on a 1994 rape, investigators were not close to identifying a suspect. But they had recovered the suspect’s DNA on the victim at the time of the crime. That DNA profile was entered into the state’s crime database and awaits a match. Absent a charge in the coming months, however, that match would come too late for a prosecution to occur.
Instead of allowing the time to run out, Franklin County Prosecuting Attorney Ron O’Brien decided to present the evidence to a grand jury and ask the grand jury to indict the only bit of identifying information he had- the DNA profile from the 1994 rape. The grand jury obliged and on Tuesday, December 17th, they returned an indictment against “John Doe KA 7/10/94” with “KA” being the initials of the victim and “7/10/94” the date of the offense. If the perpetrator is ever identified, the prosecutor will file a motion asking the court to amend the indictment and replace the DNA profile with the name of the defendant.
While the indictment was noteworthy, it was by no means a first. Prosecutors in New York City have issued more than 100 such indictments. The criminal code in the state of Delaware has been amended to specifically allow for profiles to be indicted. But the oldest such indictment in Central Ohio was actually brought by then Delaware County prosecutor W. Duncan Whitney in a 1993 case that was then on the cutting edge of DNA technology.
The indictment issued this month in Franklin County may sit idle for many years, but the issuance of it by the grand jury satisfies the statute of limitations and means that the victim of a heinous crime may yet get her day in court.
David Hejmanowski is a Magistrate at the Delaware County Probate/Juvenile Court, Court Administrator of the Juvenile Court and a former Assistant Prosecuting Attorney.