A LAW ENFORCEMENT TOOL FOR THE 21st CENTURY / Under New Legislation, Tennessee Prosecutors Can Stop Statute of Limitations When Suspect’s DNA Profile is Known

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Under legislation already approved by the Tennessee Senate and scheduled for a floor vote in the House of Representatives, prosecutors will be able to continue their practice of proceeding with criminal charges against perpetrators even when they can’t be captured or even identified by name — as long as the individual’s unique DNA profile is known.

At a news conference attended by leading prosecutors and the Director of the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, the bill’s sponsors, Sen. Mark Green, M.D., (R-Clarksville) and Rep. Ryan Haynes (R-14th Dist.), said the measure lets prosecutors “stop the clock” on the statute of limitations, the time limit by which criminal actions must be commenced.

The measure received unanimous approval by the Senate on Monday, April 1, and is now scheduled for a vote next week in the House of Representatives.

“This bill sends lawbreakers a clear message that Tennessee will use every available technology to track you down and bring you to justice — no matter how long it takes,” said Dr. Green, an emergency room physician who routinely gathers DNA evidence.  “It helps keep Tennessee’s laws up to date with advances in medicine and science.”

“This legislation is a major step forward in making sure those people who commit the most egregious of crimes are prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law,” stated Rep. Haynes. “I am proud of this legislation and thank every single person and organization involved in this project for working towards a safer Tennessee.”

The legislation codifies the practice used by 20th District Attorney General Torry Johnson in the case of Robert Jason Burdick, the so-called “Wooded Rapist,” whose crimes spanned more than a decade.  His case was kept alive because a piece of skin he left at the scene of one of his earliest crimes provided law enforcement DNA evidence linking him to the crime.

“Even though the defendant in this case wasn’t taken into custody until several years after the crime, we were able to preserve the case through the DNA that was collected” at the time, noted Johnson in a statement.  “The use of DNA as a way of identifying defendants and preventing the statute of limitations from running will help bring people to justice.”

On appeal, the Tennessee Supreme Court affirmed that prosecutors can properly commence a criminal action, effectively tolling the Statute of Limitations, in cases where the suspect’s unique DNA profile is known.

Both Dr. Green and Rep. Haynes praised the work of Johnson and Assistant District Roger Moore, who prosecuted the case.

“The ‘Wooded Rapist’ case shows the real potential of DNA evidence,” said Dr. Green.  “The painstaking work of police and medical personnel to retrieve and preserve the DNA samples were rewarded when, years later, the perpetrator was finally identified — but it took the persistence and creativity of skilled prosecutors to bring him to justice.  We want all Tennessee prosecutors to have these tools at their disposal.”

“Receiving justice for victims should not have a deadline,” said Tennessee Bureau of Investigation Director Mark Gwyn, “especially when there’s DNA evidence available that could lead to solving a crime.”

“Laws need to be updated to keep up with technology and this legislation does just that,” Gwyn added.  “There’s no reason a violent crime should go unsolved when you have DNA that could identify the perpetrator in the future.”

Senate sponsors of the bill, in addition to Green are:  Senators Ketron, Finney, Bowling, Burks, Campfield, Haile, McNally, Norris, Stevens, and Tracy.  House sponsors of the bill, in addition to Haynes are:  Representatives Lamberth, Rogers, Weaver, Shipley, Hardaway, Rich, Watson, Parkinson, Faison, Lundberg, Travis, Fitzhugh, Camper, White M, Shepard, Eldridge and Speaker Pro Tempore Curtis Johnson.
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