Pennsylvania should erase the statute of limitations on all felonies and some misdemeanors when DNA evidence can be used to identify a perpetrator, says Philadelphia District Attorney Lynne Abraham, the Philadelphia Inquirer reports.
A growing number of states have moved to suspend time limits on sex crimes where DNA evidence is present. Abraham’s sweeping proposal, to be introduced by State Rep. Dennis M. O’Brien (R), would go far beyond that, covering crimes such as burglary and even fraud. If DNA identifies criminals, they should not be allowed to escape punishment just because a time limit has expired, she argues. “I think the public wants this,” Abraham said.
Defense lawyers and the American Civil Liberties Union say the proposal infringes on the rights of those accused to defend themselves. “Statutes of limitations do apply to a modern world,” said Daniel Alva, a defense lawyer. “I think the citizenry should wake up and realize what they are giving up.”
Over the passage of many years, for example, alibi witnesses may die, noted Larry Frankel of the American Civil Liberties Union. Countered Abraham: “Defense attorneys always want us to go back to all those old cases and do DNA,” referring to cases in which people serving long prison sentences have been exonerated through DNA testing. “What is it that they truly want?” she asked. “They can’t have it both ways.”
Paul Robinson, a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania, argues that statutes of limitations have outlived their usefulness. Robinson said that laws and rules governing speedy trials and due process already protected the rights of the accused, and that defense attorneys could discredit unreliable evidence. “DNA has sort of exposed the inherent weakness of statutes of limitations,” said Robinson, coauthor of a forthcoming book called Law Without Justice: How and Why Criminal Law Deliberately Sacrifices Doing Justice.