[Paleopsych] NYT: In New York, Power of DNA Spurs Call to Abolish Statute of Limitations for Rape
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Sun Jan 22 01:32:26 UTC 2006
Power of DNA Spurs Call to Abolish Statute of Limitations for Rape
By JULIA PRESTON
It was his eyes. She was flipping through a newspaper, and suddenly
his eyes were staring at her from a police photograph in the crime
pages. Even before she read the headline, she felt shock. Then nausea.
"The way he came at me with that knife, I can't forget those eyes,"
she said, recalling the stranger who climbed through her Manhattan
apartment window one night in late 1972 and raped her.
The man's photograph, published last April, brought it all back in an
instant for Stefanie Aubry, the victim. It brought back her agonizing
decision to submit silently so he would not harm her two young
daughters, asleep in the same room. It revived her furious anger -
even though the crime happened more than three decades ago.
Ms. Aubry learned from news accounts that the man's name was Fletcher
A. Worrell and that he was accused, based on DNA evidence, of a
strikingly similar rape in the same area of Manhattan just seven
months after her attack. Certain that he was the one who had assaulted
her, Ms. Aubry called the Manhattan district attorney.
She was one of six victims of decades-old unsolved rapes who contacted
New York prosecutors after Mr. Worrell's police photo was released
last spring, describing the marrow-deep chill of recognition they felt
when they saw his face.
But the only thing certain at this point is that Mr. Worrell, 59, who
has never been a suspect in any of those attacks, can never be
prosecuted for them. New York's five-year state statute of limitations
for rape has long since run out. The victims will not get a chance to
prove their suspicions in court, nor will Mr. Worrell get a chance to
prove them wrong.
Prosecutors can only lend an ear to the victims, who say they are
living with unhealed wounds, as though the rapes happened weeks ago.
"It was one tale of horror after another," said Martha Bashford, the
assistant district attorney who fielded the calls. "I take notes and
try to make sure it becomes part of the record. But otherwise, there
is nothing I can do."
City officials say Mr. Worrell's case provides a stark example of why
New York's 40-year-old statute of limitations for sexual assault cases
has become obsolete. Since he was arrested last year, Mr. Worrell has
been linked by DNA to a decades-long trail of predation. In November,
a jury convicted him in the 1973 rape of Kathleen Ham in Chelsea. DNA
matches have tied him to at least 21 other rapes in New Jersey and
Mr. Worrell's lawyer, Michael F. Rubin, declined to comment on the
cases of the six victims who came forward after his client's picture
was published, saying Mr. Worrell had not been legally implicated in
any of them. But he disputed the idea that DNA testing had made the
statute of limitations outdated.
The statute "ensures timely prosecution when memories are still fresh,
and the advent of DNA technology hasn't changed that," Mr. Rubin said.
The arrest of Mr. Worrell in Ms. Ham's case was a lucky exception for
the prosecutors. A trial for her rape that Mr. Worrell faced in 1974
ended in a hung jury. He jumped bail soon after, so a warrant was
issued for his arrest. It was discovered last year in a background
check when Mr. Worrell tried to buy a shotgun in Georgia. When
prosecutors went to their old files, they found Ms. Ham's underpants
stuffed in a folder. Traces of semen on the underwear matched Mr.
The prospects for justice for the six women who believe they also were
Mr. Worrell's victims are remote. The assaults happened in the 1970's,
two decades before DNA testing became common forensic practice. The
law at the time required eyewitness corroboration of a victim's
testimony and proof that she had put up "earnest" resistance, making
rape cases hard for the police to resolve and discouraging detectives
from investing time and resources in them.
The six victims told prosecutors that the police did not collect
fingerprints or other evidence from the crime scene, and in most cases
did not send them for medical examinations.
"I didn't feel like anybody made a big deal about it," Ms. Aubry said
of the police who answered her 911 call. Now 57, Ms. Aubry lives on
Staten Island and works as an administrator at a medical center. In
November 1972, she says, she was a long-distance telephone operator
making $2.91 an hour.
Just as the attacker did in Ms. Ham's rape, the man who attacked Ms.
Aubry crept in darkness up a rear fire escape and through an open
window. Ms. Aubry lived with her daughters, 2 and 3 years old, on the
third floor of a building on East Third Street in Manhattan.
Ms. Aubry recalls that the man brazenly switched on the light before
he jumped on her bed clutching her kitchen carving knife, threatening
to kill the girls if she screamed. She stayed quiet, and the girls
She called 911 as soon as he left, and two police officers were there
in minutes, asking questions and taking notes. But they never sent her
for a medical exam, she said, and she showered immediately, washing
away crucial evidence. The next morning she pored over the precinct's
books of sexual assault suspects. But the eyes she could not forget
were not there.
Retelling the story in her living room recently, Ms. Aubry at first
seemed calm. Suddenly she was shuddering, crying, struggling to clear
her throat. "It never leaves your mind completely," she said. "There
are times, I could be just sitting alone, or in my car driving, it
would come back into my head. And the anger comes right back with it."
Joyce Doyle, another woman who called the district attorney after
seeing Mr. Worrell's picture, said she was attacked in June 1973 in
her apartment on East 31st Street. The intruder came through the
living room window, threw a cloth over her head and "was dragging me
around by the hair."
He tied her hands with a pillowcase, she recalled. But when he left
her alone for a moment she twisted her legs together like a vine. He
was not able to force them apart, and he finally fled without raping
Although the man had spent 20 minutes rifling through her closets and
drawers, Ms. Doyle said the police did not collect fingerprints. If
they had, she noted, they could have compared them with Mr. Worrell's
prints when he was arrested three weeks later, on June 26, in the rape
of Ms. Ham.
Perhaps because Ms. Doyle thwarted the rape, she said she was not as
emotionally scarred as some victims. "I was only crazy for two years,
instead of 32 years," said Ms. Doyle, now 68 and a retired lawyer. But
that did not lessen the impact when she spotted Mr. Worrell's
photograph on television during his trial in November.
"I just looked up from my computer," Ms. Doyle said, "and I said, 'My
God, it's him.' "
Another woman who called about Mr. Worrell said she had been raped in
November 1973 by a man who sneaked into her Upper East Side apartment
when she left her door ajar to take out the garbage.
"It kicked me in the stomach" to see Mr. Worrell's picture in the
paper, she told Ms. Bashford, the prosecutor. A fourth victim also
told Ms. Bashford that she was sure Mr. Worrell was the man who raped
her at knifepoint in an East Village apartment later in 1973.
Under New York state law, rape is a B felony, on a par with burglary
and grand larceny. The five-year statute can be extended to 10 years
if the perpetrator's whereabouts are unknown. Adopted in 1970, the
statute is intended to protect defendants against stale prosecution in
which evidence is lost and witnesses have faded recollections or are
no longer available.
But city officials argue that DNA, offering the possibility of a
scientifically precise identification of the criminal many years after
the crime, has changed the legal calculus.
"DNA doesn't have any of the human frailties," said John Feinblatt,
the justice coordinator for Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg. "It's time for
law to catch up to science."
Since reform of New York's rape laws began in the late 1970's, the
police have more systematically collected evidence known as a rape
kit, including samples of semen and hair taken from different areas of
a victim's body. The F.B.I. maintains a national databank of DNA
profiles taken from crime scene evidence and from convicted sex
In New York, bills offered by State Senator Dean G. Skelos, a
Republican, to abolish the statute of limitations for rape have been
repeatedly adopted by the Senate over the last decade, but have not
passed the Assembly. A bill the Bloomberg administration offered last
spring to eliminate the statute is awaiting action in the legislative
session beginning in January.
"Many criminals got away with it because they simply disappeared,"
said Assemblyman Mark Weprin, a Queens Democrat who sponsored the
The Manhattan district attorney, Robert M. Morgenthau, has proposed
elevating rape to a Class A felony, like murder, kidnapping and arson,
which do not have statutes of limitations. He noted that 26 states
have abolished such statutes.
"The victim doesn't ever get over it," Mr. Morgenthau said, "so
there's no reason why the perpetrator should be home free."
Defense attorneys say that the statute serves to spur timely action by
police. It "has been working for decades, ensuring prompt
investigation by the police and the prosecuting authorities," said Ray
Kelly, a veteran lawyer who is the president of the New York State
Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. None of the proposed reforms
would be retroactive, so they would offer no relief to victims like
She remains haunted by the image of Mr. Worrell and the thought of the
crime. "It stays in my mind," Ms. Aubry said, hunched over on her
living-room couch. "It keeps me always on guard. You just have to
leave it to God and go on living. You have to keep your eyes open and
your doors locked."
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