Monday, July 20, 2009

Not Getting Away with Murder

This Associated Press story, which ran on Sunday, "NH law keeps murder case liars on the hook," describes the new legislation that Renny Cushing sponsored.

CONCORD, N.H. — Renny Cushing is convinced a former New Hampshire state trooper got away with murder. So the state representative from Hampton sponsored a law that will have people looking over their shoulders for the rest of their lives if they've lied about a murder or helped cover one up.

The law removes the statute of limitations, or deadline, for when people can be prosecuted for crimes related to murders. They include such infractions as falsifying evidence, threatening witnesses or lying.

New Hampshire is one of the few states with such a law, and Cushing hopes it becomes a model for other states. Relatives of murder victims — including himself — yearn for justice, he said. And new technology is helping to uncover the truth years after crimes were committed.

There is no limit on charging someone with murder, but laws across the country commonly let people off the hook after a few years for lesser offenses such as backing a false alibi of a murder suspect.

That will no longer be the case in New Hampshire, starting Jan. 1.

"It's one thing if you give false information about somebody stealing a bike, it's another thing if you give false information about somebody stealing somebody's life," Cushing said.

Prosecutors do not envision jailing a lot of people who obstructed investigations, but they hope the lifelong threat of prison will prompt some to tell what they know.

"It gives us another tool to use with witnesses who are reluctant and may act as a deterrent to people if they think that if they can withhold information and enough time goes by, that they'll be immune from prosecution," said Senior Assistant Attorney General Jeffery Strelzin. "Now they'll know they won't be. So there will be some incentive there hopefully for people to be more cooperative and more truthful."

Cushing said the law also could help put killers in prison, at least for short sentences. For example, prosecutors can use the law if investigators discover a murder suspect tampered with evidence, but they couldn't find enough evidence to bring a murder charge.

Cushing said he was inspired by the case of Janet Dow and her stepson, Stephen. Their bodies were found in their burned car in northern New Hampshire in December 1982.

Investigators accepted an explanation from Janet's husband, Richard, a local police officer and former state trooper, that the two had sped away from their Thornton home and crashed, likely igniting an open container of gasoline he said the son had placed in the car.

A decade later, authorities discredited Dow's account, saying they believed the Dows were murdered and the crash staged. Richard Dow was the target of the investigation, but the attorney general said there was not enough evidence to charge anyone.

Strelzin said he couldn't comment on specific open cases, but Cushing said the new law would have helped.
"When police subsequently uncovered the fact it was a homicide instead of an accident, Dick Dow could not be prosecuted for what were obvious false statements made to law enforcement," Cushing said. Dow has consistently refused to comment on the allegations.

Cushing said personal experience also drove him. His father was murdered on his doorstep in 1988 by a police officer neighbor with a grudge. The officer then consoled the family as he pretended to help track down the killer.

"You never lose your longing for justice," Cushing said. "I don't believe people should be allowed to get away with murder."
A few states have similar laws. Pennsylvania's law sets no time limit on prosecuting felony cases connected to a first- or second-degree murder. In Arizona, there are no limits on cases involving falsifying public records. And in Florida, there is no statue of limitation on cases of perjury that occur in capital felony cases.

Limits generally were enacted to make sure cases are pursued only with evidence that has not deteriorated with time. Suspects not charged within the period can never be tried for the crime.

However, new techniques ensure that some evidence, such as DNA, remain intact for decades. Some states have enacted longer limits in cases with DNA evidence, but they generally are aimed at the perpetrator, not someone who helps conceal a crime.

At Northeastern University's College of Criminal Justice, Associate Dean Jack McDevitt said the New Hampshire law is rare, but he suspects other states will change laws to deal with new forensic techniques that can uncover the truth long after the fact.
"We are really in the beginning stages of that, so I think there's going to be more and more of these kind of new, ancillary developments around the idea that we are going to be able to know more about crimes that were committed from a forensic point of view than we ever did before," McDevitt said.

He said the threat of prison might prevent some people from lying about homicides. But he doesn't expect that to happen as much in big cities, where the threat of gang retaliation for "snitching" is more dangerous than the threat of going to jail for lying to police.

"The best way to get good evidence on a crime is to have an existing relationship of trust with members of the community who then would come forward and testify and give you the evidence you need," he said.

New Hampshire's law applies to eight crimes — including felonies such as perjury and witness tampering and misdemeanors such as lying to the police. The felonies carry up to seven years of prison time, and the misdemeanors carry one-year sentences.

Before the law, prosecutors had to bring charges within six years for the felonies and one year for misdemeanors.
Cushing is hopeful his law catches on nationally.

"Sometimes I just want to do on-the-edge lawmaking and if lawmaking in other states follows, then I'll feel good," he said.

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