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Killing Time: The Application of John Doe Indictments to Keep Cases Warm

NCJ Number
Catherine M. Guthrie
Date Published
April 2007
2 pages
This article describes a new legal tactic using DNA profiles to avoid statutes of limitation.
Through the use of DNA technology, lawmakers have created innovative and increasingly popular solutions to statutes of limitation: the John Doe indictment. Unlike their traditional counterparts, John Doe indictments use DNA profiles instead of names to identify individual suspects. As a result, crime scene evidence such as semen or hair samples can hold a case open for years, until a viable suspect is identified. Specifically, a statute of limitations reflects a legislative judgment that, after a certain time, no quantum of evidence is sufficient to convict. In general, the clock starts to run from the time the crime was committed and is suspended by the commencement of a prosecution. Commencement requires an indictment against a specific individual. If a suspect is not identified and the deadline is not met, the accused becomes immune from action. Statutes of limitation were designed with the general goal of promoting justice through finality. The most commonly cited of these purposes include: (1) ensuring the use of fresh evidence, (2) encouraging prompt and efficient police work, and (3) generating closure and repose for both criminals and the community. However such laws can also arguably denigrate justice by arbitrarily and unsympathetically allowing criminals to avoid capture and punishment. This is significant in cold cases because, by definition, months, years, or even decades have passed since the criminal act occurred. One of the earliest examples of a John Doe indictment is a 1999 rape/kidnapping case in Milwaukee. The Assistant District Attorney in the case successfully stopped the clock by identifying the perpetrator as John Doe, unknown male with matching DNA at specified genetic locations. While this trend is usually seen in sexual assault cases (where both biological evidence and statutes of limitation are more prevalent), one prosecutor even expanded the use of John Doe indictments to homicide. References