End Statute Of Limitations For Rape Cases
On an August evening in 1993, a nine-year-old girl was walking to a friend’s apartment in the Queensbridge Houses in Long Island City. Suddenly she was grabbed from behind and dragged to the roof of a building by an assailant she never saw. The attacker beat her in the head with a brick, stomped on her face, knocking her unconscious, and sexually attacked her. The victim regained consciousness and staggered to her friend’s apartment, clad only in a blood-soaked tee shirt. While evidence was collected in a rape kit at the hospital where the child was treated, there were no leads. The attacker, whoever he was, roamed the streets for years after the crime was committed.
In May 2003, one Michael Jerome Brown, 44, was convicted of a string of burglaries in Maryland. In accordance with accepted procedure, as a convicted felon his DNA profile was entered into the national DNA database. That same year, an initiative in Queens to solve cold cases using newly available DNA technology got underway. Evidence collected by the hospital from the nine-year-old rape victim, who is now 21 years old, was analyzed and matched through DNA databanks to Michael Brown, still in prison in Maryland. On May 9, 2005, after a week-long trial, a Queens jury deliberated for less than an hour to find Michael Brown guilty of sodomy in the first degree, kidnapping in the second degree, assault in the second degree and endangering the welfare of a child in the 1993 attack. He faces up to 25 years in prison.
Michael Brown was indicted by a Queens County Grand Jury only six weeks before the statute of limitations on the case in which he was a suspect was due to run out. Currently, under New York Penal Law, the statute of limitations in rape cases is only 10 years if the rapist’s identity or whereabouts are unknown. After 10 years, even if a rapist’s identity becomes known through matches using state and national DNA databanks, a district attorney cannot prosecute a defendant.
Queens District Attorney Richard Brown said that Queens County has had great success in prosecuting rapes and sexual assaults against women and children using DNA evidence. The DNA Prosecutions Unit of his Special Victims Bureau has already convicted nearly three dozen men for various sex crimes, including 12 who were serial rapists. But under the 10-year statute of limitations for rape cases, prosecutors have been barred from acting on DNA-based leads potentially involving 50 more serial rapists. They, too, still walk the streets and stalk their victims.
The 10-year statute of limitations was reasonable when prosecutors had to rely on witnesses whose memories of an incident could alter and fade over time and physical evidence that could deteriorate. Today, however, as District Attorney Brown points out, with DNA evidence it is scientifically possible to apprehend and prosecute defendants, no matter how much time passes.
District Attorney Brown has joined Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau in calling for legislators to amend the law, recognize the power of DNA evidence as a crime fighting tool and end the existing statute of limitations for sex crimes. “Sex crime victims suffer a lifetime of trauma and deserve our best efforts to achieve justice for them,” District Attorney Brown said. “Science has now given us the tools to see in sexual assault cases that justice delayed is no longer justice denied.”
Brown and Morgenthau are not alone in calling for the elimination, or at the very least the extension, of the statute of limitations for rape cases. In 2003, City Councilmember Peter Vallone Jr. and 17 of his colleagues, including Queens Councilmembers Joseph Addabbo Jr., Leroy Comrie, John Liu, James Sanders Jr. and Helen Sears, introduced a resolution calling for the state legislature to extend the statute of limitations for the prosecution of certain violent sex offenses. It was unanimously adopted by the entire council. On May 9, 2005, the same day Michael Brown was convicted for his vicious attack on the nine-year-old girl in 1993, Vallone sent a letter to every member of both houses of the state legislature, urging them to extend or eliminate the statute of limitations as it pertains to certain sexual assault cases.
We agree entirely with Brown, Morgenthau and the city council that the law must be brought in step with science. To leave matters as they are now not only assaults victims a second time, it also leaves some innocent people wrongly convicted languishing in prison for crimes they did not commit while the real perpetrators prowl among us. To truly ensure justice for all, the statute of limitations on rape cases should be struck off the books in the state of New York—the sooner the better.