Submitted by Elaine Magliaro, Guest Blogger
Last Thursday, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts ruled that prosecutors have the right to seek “so-called John Doe indictments” in rape cases. What this means is that prosecutors in the state will be able to indict the DNA profile of an unknown person in order to prevent the statute of limitations for charging an individual with a crime from running out. The justices concluded that a DNA profile is an “indelible ‘bar code’ that labels an individual’s identity with nearly irrefutable precision.’’
The court ruling came in the case of a Boston man named Jerry Dixon whose DNA profile had been indicted in two rape cases before his identity was known to prosecutors. The court said that Dixon’s rights to due process were not violated by the use of genetic information to describe “John Doe” in the rape indictment.
The two alleged rapes occurred in 1991. In 1992, a man named Anthony Powell was convicted of committing one of the rapes. He served twelve years in prison before DNA testing proved that he was not the rapist.
Just days before the statute of limitations was due to expire on the 1991 rapes in 2006, a Suffolk County grand jury indicted an unknown suspect, listed as “John Doe,” on the basis of DNA evidence that was collected at the two crime scenes. Two years later, the genetic material was traced to Dixon who was then serving a prison sentence for an unrelated crime.
Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley said that the DNA indictments “ensure that the clock does not run out on the use of DNA evidence to hold dangerous predators accountable for their violent acts.’’ According Coakley’s office, the recent court ruling resembles appellate decisions in a number of other states.
Veronica J. White, Dixon’s attorney, said “the court had essentially done away with statutes of limitations in cases with DNA evidence.” White added: “The statute of limitations is the primary guarantee for a defendant against stale prosecutions, and [the justices] have trampled on that right today.”
The court said that the Legislature could amend laws that deal with statutes of limitations if it wants to establish more safeguards against stale prosecutions.