Justice Fabiana Pierre-Louis wrote the unanimous opinion, which reverses the conviction of a Camden County man convicted of sexual assault in 2017. (Courtesy of New Jersey Courts)
Authorities have five years to prosecute crimes involving DNA evidence once they possess both physical evidence and a suspect’s DNA, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled Thursday in a case testing state law on the statutes of limitations in crimes.
Any delays in lab testing or “lack of clarity” in official policies on DNA samples do not give the government more time to prosecute beyond what state statute permits, the court said in a unanimous opinion written by Justice Fabiana Pierre-Louis.
The ruling reverses the conviction of Bradley Thompson, who was convicted in a 2001 Camden County sexual assault 16 years after the assault, according to the ruling.
Police had DNA evidence from the victim within a day of the assault and collected a DNA sample from Thompson in an unrelated matter in 2004. But a federal database at the time had different policies then on what data was entered into the system, so no match was detected, according to the opinion.
In 2010, the FBI expanded what data from DNA samples it allowed investigators to enter into its database, but the New Jersey State Police Lab didn’t update its policies to reflect the FBI’s change in guidance for another six years, according to the opinion.
As a result of the change, state police in 2016 discovered a match between Thompson’s sample and the 2001 assault, and police charged Thompson with aggravated sexual assault, burglary, and related offenses.
He was convicted in 2017 of lesser offenses, fourth-degree criminal sexual contact and fourth-degree criminal trespass. He had fought the charges even before trial, arguing the five-year statute of limitation on the crimes had run out. He was sentenced to 33 months in prison but appealed his conviction.
An appeals court affirmed the conviction. The Supreme Court’s decision reverses it.
Pierre-Louis said statutes of limitations are intended to protect defendants from having to defend themselves after memories have faded, witnesses have died or disappeared, and evidence has been lost.
The statute of limitations for many crimes in New Jersey is five years, and the clock starts ticking the day after the crime. But in crimes involving DNA evidence, the clock doesn’t start until authorities are in possession of both the physical evidence from a crime and the DNA of a suspect.
In Thompson’s case, authorities had possession of his DNA in 2004 — and were put “on notice” in 2010 of the expanded DNA data they could test, Pierre-Louis wrote. The match was not discovered until 2016.
In her ruling, Pierre-Louis parsed words in state law on the statute of limitations like “possession,” citing Merriam-Webster’s and other dictionaries.
“A plain reading of the statute leads to the conclusion that the statute of limitations begins to run exactly as the statute directs — when the state possesses both the physical evidence from the crime and a suspect’s DNA sample, not when a match occurs. That reading appropriately construes narrowly the exception to the five-year limitations period,” she said. “And a contrary reading would essentially endorse inaction by a prosecution equipped with all the necessary components to identify a suspect, a reading that cannot be reconciled with the protective purpose of a statute of limitations.”
Attorney CJ Griffin, who filed an amicus brief on behalf of the Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers of New Jersey, applauded the ruling as a victory for defendants’ rights.
“It’s a matter of fundamental fairness,” Griffin said. “The court applied a plain reading of the statute. The state had the capability to make the match many years sooner, but failed to do so. We have statute of limitations for a reason and the state failed to abide by it, thus a reversal was the necessary outcome.”
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