A man who will be tried on rape charges in McPherson County, Kans., is believed to be the first in the nation whose DNA was charged with a crime, says the Kansas City Star. Douglas Belt, who was sentenced to death this month in Sedgwick County for the murder of a housekeeper, was charged in 1991 as “John Doe” by McPherson County Attorney Ty Kaufman. Kaufman, whose only evidence in a series of rape cases was the DNA of the alleged attacker, had to file charges before the statute of limitations ran out. He filed what has become known as a “John Doe” warrant charging the person to whom the DNA belonged with the crime. A 2002 American University Law Review article lists the 1991 McPherson County case as the first “John Doe” indictment of its kind in the nation. Since then, such warrants have been used many times by prosecutors across the country. Defense attorneys criticize the warrants, who say it is unfair to people who may be charged with a crime years after it occurs.
Kaufman had to persuade a judge that a DNA profile was a more specific identifier than a person’s name and date of birth. “We didn’t have a picture. We didn’t have his name. We didn’t have his Social Security number. But we did have something better. We had his DNA.” It wasn’t until 2003 — long after the statute of limitations would have expired in the rape cases — that Belt, 43, was identified as the person whose DNA was found at the crime scenes. Wichita lawyer Richard Ney says the warrants are “legal fiction” designed to circumvent statute of limitations laws, which he said “give a defendant a fair playing field.” Ney said the tactic could be used to charge a bank robber whose picture was taken by a security camera. “If you have a picture, charge the picture,” he said. “If you have a fingerprint, charge the fingerprint. If you have an eyewitness description, charge the eyewitness description. Where will this end?”