Very interesting op-ed in the NY Times from author & lawyer Scott Turow, all about how advances in forensic technology may also impact statutes of limitations. He raises some intriguing questions about changes in law & the passage of time:
"THIS Friday a 33-year-old man named Juan Luna will go on trial here for the murder of seven people in a Brown’s Chicken restaurant in Palatine, Ill., on Jan. 8, 1993. The investigation of the murders, in which the victims’ bloody corpses were discovered in the restaurant freezer, languished for more than a decade until Mr. Luna’s DNA was identified in the saliva found on a chicken bone at the crime scene.
"Greater accuracy in the truth-finding process is a laudable development. But I worry that the growing capacity of today’s forensics to reach farther and farther into the past seems likely to undermine the law’s time-ingrained notions, embodied in statutes of limitations, about how long people should be liable to criminal prosecution. As the Brown’s Chicken case illustrates, DNA analysts [PDF] can now examine scant decades-old specimens and produce results of near-certainty in identifying suspects. Nor are the innovations in forensic science limited to the testing of human DNA. Forensic botany can often establish whether plant fragments found on a victim or defendant have a unique origin. Fire-scene investigation has advanced because of new extraction techniques and instrumentation. Fingerprint identification has been revolutionized both by cryogenic processes for lifting latent prints and computer imaging that allows faster and more reliable identification of partial prints. Forensic pathology, ballistics and forensic anthropology have also moved ahead rapidly.
"The law is a fluid thing, and there is an inherent unfairness in initiating a prosecution decades later when legal rules and community expectations have changed. If a jury — or the police and prosecutors — now strongly disapprove of conduct to which they would have once turned a blind eye, it’s natural to wonder whether the defendant would have acted the same way in today’s ethical climate.
"Statutes of limitations have also traditionally embodied a moral judgment that if a person has lived blamelessly for a significant time, he should not have the anxiety of potential prosecution hanging over him forever. Violent crimes are usually the province of young men, and it is often the case that one of the principal purposes of the criminal justice system — keeping the criminally inclined off the streets — vanishes with time."