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Charges filed against DNA profile to beat statute of limitations

In an apparent bid to avoid missing a six-year statute of limitations, the Wisconsin Department of Justice recently filed felony charges against a man who mailed a threatening letter to a judge in 2012. Prosecutors apparently obtained DNA from the back of the stamp, which the suspect had presumably licked.

There's only one problem with the case: Prosecutors don't know who that DNA belongs to.

The case has been filed under what's referred to as a "John Doe indictment." When prosecutors believe they have everything they need to prosecute except for the identity of the suspect, this procedure allows charges to be filed without a suspect while still meeting the statute of limitations.

In this case, an unknown suspect sent two threatening letters to Dane County Circuit Judge Juan Colás. The first arrived just weeks after Colás had made a controversial ruling about public sector collective bargaining rights -- a ruling that has since been overturned by the Wisconsin Supreme Court.

At the top, the letter read, "Justice -- you sir are nothing but an obstruction to the law -- you sir are expendable --." Contained in the envelope was a Fixodent denture adhesive ad with the comment, "missing teeth?"

The second letter contained an LA Times article about two slain Mexican politicians with note saying, among other things, "Notice the finality that dissent brings in your country -- Don't push -- we have a different response!" Colás is of Spanish descent and grew up in Columbia.

The DNA profile obtained from the stamp has not been matched to any profiles in the Wisconsin DNA Databank. However, prosecutors believe it is associated with other threats to judges that occurred between 2012 and 2013.

The state of Wisconsin has been a pioneer in John Doe indictments, but the procedure is used in other states. Courts in Wisconsin, California, New York and Ohio have upheld its use. John Doe indictments have become relatively common since the late 1990s, and state records obtained by the Wisconsin State Journal indicate that there are 23 current cases open in 14 counties in the state.

Filing charges against a DNA profile is legal in Wisconsin, but that doesn't mean it truly promotes justice. We have statutes of limitation for good reasons. First, they require prosecutors to act with reasonable diligence in charging crimes. Moreover, when criminal trials are held too long after the events they relate to, the evidence may have become stale, unavailable or unreliable. This particularly harms defendants, who may be unable to locate evidence that could exonerate them. Finally, prosecuting someone for a long-dormant claim may result in more injustice than justice.

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