[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


    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.
    Worrell's DNA.

    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
    stayed asleep.

    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
    city's bill.

    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
    Ms. Aubry.

    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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