Montana appealing cold case rape ruling to US Supreme Court
HELENA, Mont. (AP) — Montana’s attorney general is asking the U.S. Supreme Court to reconsider a 2003 ruling that says it’s unconstitutional to bring new criminal charges after a state’s statute of limitations has expired.
Attorney General Tim Fox said Wednesday a man whose DNA matched evidence left after the rape of an 8-year-old Billings girl should still be brought to justice, even if the match wasn’t made for nearly three decades.
“This is an example of the law catching up with science,” Fox said in a statement. “We have DNA evidence that conclusively identifies the suspect in a heinous crime, and justice demands that he be brought to trial.”
“A victory in the U.S. Supreme Court will not only allow us to bring justice and closure for (the victim), but will help achieve similar results throughout the country as perpetrators are conclusively identified through breakthroughs in DNA science,” Fox said.
Fox is appealing a Montana Supreme Court ruling that cited the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2003 decision in saying the state couldn’t pursue charges against Ronald Dwight Tipton for the 1987 rape.
Montana argues the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2003 ruling in a California case was too broad in prohibiting “any legislative act that revives a statute of limitations if the limitations period already expired.”
“That rule has led to disastrous results in cases where perpetrators evaded identification past the limitations period and were later identified by DNA,” the state wrote in its request for the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the case.
Tipton’s attorney, Robert Stephens Jr. of Billings, did not immediately return an after-hours phone message left at his office.
Reviving a limitations period based on DNA identification does not violate the Constitution, the state argues, because it does not retroactively alter the definition of a crime or increase its punishment.
DNA evidence from the 1987 Montana rape was preserved, even though it could not be tested at the time, the state notes. A 2002 test on the DNA exonerated a man who had been convicted. However, the DNA wasn’t matched to Tipton until 2014 when he was convicted of a drug charge and required to supply a DNA sample.
Montana lawmakers have extended the statues of limitations that apply to sex crimes against children several times over the past three decades. In 2007, the Legislature passed a law saying suspects could be prosecuted within a year of a conclusive DNA match even if the statute of limitations had expired.
A state district judge denied Tipton’s motion to dismiss the charges saying, in part, the extended statute of limitations was needed “so that the law can keep pace with changes in science and technology, while ensuring Constitutional protections.”
If the U.S. Supreme Court accepts the case, oral arguments could be held in the spring.