A man suspected of a 30-year-old D.C. sexual assault was recently convicted and sentenced to life in prison.
The 64-year-old defendant is alleged to have attacked the 25-year-old victim outside of her home after she returned from work.
Our D.C. criminal defense lawyers know that the kind of tactics employed in rape cases back when this happened in 1978 have evolved significantly - most notably with the advent of DNA.
In fact, that's what ultimately solved this cold case, which had been inactive until it was re-opened by the department's cold case unit in 2011. By that time, the defendant had been convicted of a burglary and sexual battery in Florida in 1999, so his DNA was entered into CODIS, which is the national DNA-tracking database. A swab taken from the victim back in 1978 matched the defendant.
Because of the kinds of changes that have occurred in these particular investigations over the last 20 years, the U.S. Department of Justice, back in 2004, issued national guidelines for forensic medical examinations in cases of sexual assault.
Now, the agency has updated those guidelines in its April 2013 National Protocol for Sexual Assault Medical Forensic Examinations for both adults and adolescents, the second edition.
At their core, the guidelines attempt to create uniformity among medical facilities, law enforcement agencies and prosecutors with regard to how sexual assault cases are approached.
A spokeswoman for the agency was quoted as saying that the biggest difference between this newer version and the original is that it takes a less prosecutorial tone. While the emphasis had previously been on pressuring the victim to cooperate with law enforcers to provide DNA samples, statements and other evidence, this new approach focuses on ensuring the mental health and well-being of the alleged victim.
In the immediate, this may seem to not affect defendants one way or another. But in fact, it does.
To begin with, an accuser who is reluctant may be hasty in revealing certain information or evidence that could be relevant to the investigation. This could potentially result in a mistaken witness identity or other issues that could later be problematic for the case.
Also, putting less pressure on accusers reduces the chances that false accusations may quickly spiral into an out-of-control situation, which the accuser may feel powerless to stop after a certain point.
Additionally, any delay in evidence collection may favor the defendant.
The other key thing this publication does is provide uniform approaches to forensic testing. That can be beneficial for defendants in a number of ways.
For one thing, it helps to ensure that defendants in districts that may have access to fewer resources won't be treated unfairly just because the testing standards aren't up to par.
Secondly, if those testing protocol are breached, it gives defense lawyers a good opportunity to challenge that evidence.
For example, one of the guidelines stresses the importance of secure storage sites for evidence that is potentially vulnerable to degradation. So let's say we're talking about a sample of wet blood or semen. These kinds of evidence require refrigeration. Urine, meanwhile, would ideally be frozen. There is also the expectation that the individuals working with samples be well-trained and knowledgeable about the potential vulnerabilities of such evidence. When the evidence is being transferred from one facility or location to another, there is the expectation that it will at all times remain preserved throughout the process.
If at any point there was a breach in the storage or if those who handled the evidence aren't as well trained as perhaps they should be, our defense attorneys won't hesitate to challenge the integrity of the evidence on that basis.