Why 'John Doe' and His DNA Stand Accused

  • Share
  • Read Later
Somewhere out there is a very guilty strand of DNA. Now, if the police can only find the person it belongs to, they’ll have caught themselves a serial rapist. In an unusual move designed to foil the state's statute of limitations, a Wisconsin prosecutor has filed rape and kidnapping charges against an unknown man, based only on the sampling of DNA collected from three of his victims. Faced with a six-year prosecution limit on rape cases, an assistant district attorney in Milwaukee County was running out of time — so he attached the case to the DNA of "John Doe." The DNA will be run through an FBI computer each month, and if any matches come up, the prosecutor has his man.

In the meantime, he’ll be busy answering questions: While it’s not uncommon for police to file charges against a John Doe known only by a physical description, this case is raising eyebrows in the legal community. "This case is very unusual because usually you have a name or at least a person in mind when you file an indictment," says TIME senior writer Adam Cohen. "That’s missing here." The implications of this case go well beyond this specific John Doe, adds Cohen. "There are thousands upon thousands of unsolved rape cases out there, and most of them have rape kits with DNA samples in them. If this methodology is approved, this could mean that all over the country, prosecutors will be filing thousands of cases against unknown rapists — and that’s obviously a major change to the current system." If this John Doe is caught, Cohen adds, he might challenge the indictment, based on the time that may have passed between the crime and the arrest. "On the other hand," he says, "statutes of limitations on criminal cases exist in order to guard against cloudy memories and stale evidence” that collect over time. That’s not likely to be much of a concern with something as damning as a positive DNA match.