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Patrice J. Holmes, NNPA, Dallas Weekly
Published: 17 March 2009

DALLAS (NNPA) - District Attorney Craig Watkins stood with the victims of sexual abuse recently shaking hands and meeting the people that will be affected a new bill that will allow for criminal records to indicate past offenses through DNA testing, even after the statute of limitations has expired.

Rep. Allen Vaught and Sen. John Carona this month took steps to give not only closure, but justice to victims whose cold cases cannot be prosecuted because they happened at a time before the Legislature had removed enforcement of the statute of limitations in 1996.

DA Watkins said that this bill that is slated to bring countless offenders to justice is bipartisan and he is not alone in advocating for it.

"You are a witness to progress," Dallas' first African-American DA said. "With this bill we hope to exonerate innocent persons and prosecute those that deserve punishment."

The bills, HB 2932 and SB 1558, will require a new type of notation in pre-existing criminal histories for clear connections between DNA evidence from older, unsolved sexual assaults and current samples on file with the Department of Public Safety. 

Once an offender has been identified through DNA, their records must then include a summary indicating that a high likelihood from DNA evidence links the offender to a sexual offense, regardless of whether the offender will or has had charges brought against them.

In addition to being used to identify criminals with other crimes they have committed, the new measure could significantly reduce the number of offenders on the streets.

After being called an advocate for this new legislation by DA Watkins, Mike Ware, chief of the District Attorney's office special fields bureau, said the bill is paramount for prosecution.

"We have to get this bill passed," Ware said. "It will take just one more step forward in the legislature and Texas will be a leader in this effort."

He added, "We should be proud of the people who have had the courage to fight for it."

Ware was speaking of the victims of the heinous crimes that many have gone unpunished. Several victims lobbied for the bill, some for closure and others for reform in the legal system.

Veronica Roth, a sexual assault victim was present at the news conference with DA Watkins and she said HB 2932 and SB 1558 will go a long way in seeing that criminals are where they belong.

"The crime for us is not over; we live with it everyday," she said. "But it helps to know who did it and put a face to it and take the steps to help others who have gone through what we have."

Levinia Masters, who was also sexually assaulted, said for the legislature to think of people like her because their plight is important.

"A lot has happened since they started this crusade and now they are holding offenders accountable," she said. "This system will be enough for us, for our peace of mind. This is about other victims who are afraid and felt there was no purpose."

If passed, Texas will be the first state to require such a sanction for those identified through DNA as rape suspects. The Dallas County District Attorney's office and the Dallas Police Department have joined forces to help those victims who cannot seek justice through prosecution. Both have been a significant factor, from the beginning, in creating justice for victims who might otherwise feel forgotten.

Of the cases already re-opened by the Dallas Police Department through their Sexual Assault Cold Case Program, 18 cases of sexual assault have been solved through DNA. The offenders matched are often serving time in a state corrections facility facing parole or are out in the community facing terms of probation or other forms of sentencing from a judge. 

"The objective of this legislation is to hold an offender accountable, and therefore keep the public safe, while still being mindful of rights guaranteed by the Constitution," said Sen. Carona, in his official statement. "I expect to see this bill evolve during the legislative process to ensure a consequence for these offenders who clearly committed a sexual assault that is both effective and fair for these unconscionable crimes."

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