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DNA Tests Fuel Drive for Longer Rape Case Statute

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In 1992, Jeri Elster of Los Angeles was bound and brutally raped for hours by a man who broke into her home as she slept.

Seven years later, advances in DNA evidence identified the alleged rapist, a man already convicted of an unrelated crime and serving time in a California prison.

But under California law, which places a 6-year statute of limitations on rapes, the man will never be tried for the crime because the statute expired before the DNA link was made. He is set to be released from prison in 2007.

“I will never forget his face or his voice--the memories continue to haunt me,” Elster said. “Our laws need to catch up to our scientific abilities.”

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Hoping to persuade lawmakers with her personal tale of injustice, Elster, 47, will go public for the first time today, when an Assembly committee discusses legislation (AB 1742) to extend the statute for two years--and indefinitely in cases where DNA testing can point to a suspect.

Like similar limits across the nation, California’s rape statute is coming under increasing attack from victims rights groups, which say that it does not reflect advances in technology and is preventing prosecution of suspected rapists.

“It does take time to solve these cases, and what a shame if these cases are solved but for some arbitrary limit,” said Karen Pomer of the Rainbow Sisters Project, a Santa Monica-based advocacy group for victims of sexual assault. “What has happened to Jeri is going to happen more and more, because the testing is getting better and better. We’re going to have known rapists walking the streets.”

The bill by Assemblyman Lou Correa (D-Anaheim) would extend the statute by two years--and in a last-minute amendment drafted this week, would completely lift the statute if DNA testing can connect someone to the crime.

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The amendment, which attempts to forge a compromise between those who favor a limit and those who want no limit, would allow prosecutors to use DNA evidence dozens of years after the rape occurred. Charges, however, would have to be brought within one year of the DNA test.

Public Safety Committee Chairman Carl Washington (D-Los Angeles) had a hand in the compromise and supports the bill, increasing the chances that it will get out of the committee intact, other lawmakers said. It is supported by law enforcement groups, including the California District Attorneys Assn. and the California State Sheriffs Assn., and has yet to register any opposition.

“To have such a heinous crime, a hate crime against women, go unpunished is more than we can accept,” Correa said. “This [bill would] expand the ability of the district attorney to bring charges. . . . This will give the prosecutors the option to use it as long as they need.”

In statehouses across the country, pressure has been building to scrap statute-of-limitation laws in light of DNA testing that has pointed to suspects in cases where the limits on charges had long passed. Three states--Florida, Nevada and New Jersey--already have repealed their statutes, and others are considering doing so.

Meanwhile, some prosecutors are resorting to clever tactics to keep cases alive by listing the genetic makeup of a suspect in arrest warrants rather than the old “John Doe” warrants used on unnamed suspects. The first California example of that technique took place this month in Sacramento.

In addition to locating suspects, DNA testing has led to high-profile cases in which jailed men were found to be innocent--including one in which a Los Angeles man, Herman Atkins, was freed from Ironwood state prison this month after 12 years behind bars.

More than 60 people nationwide have been exonerated of criminal charges and freed from prison as a result of DNA testing. That has led to legislation in Washington by Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) and in California by state Senate President Pro Tem John Burton (D-San Francisco) that would make it easier for inmates to obtain DNA tests where there is biological evidence that they could be innocent.

For Elster, who recently overcame a bout with breast cancer, changing the law is more than an attempt at justice; it is an effort to find closure and healing.

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In a cruel twist, prosecutors initially told Elster the DNA testing in her case would be admissible, then acknowledged that they had made a mistake.

“I was getting justice. I was going to see him in court. He was going to be off the streets. How beautiful can this be? I thought. Then they told me they were sorry, but there had been a mistake,” Elster said, her voice halting, as she changed the topic to today’s hearing.

“I keep thinking to myself that all they see is statistics. Their cronies can talk their ears off. But until they see someone, a working woman who has been through this, they will not understand.”


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