Tennessee Supreme Court Interprets Statute of Limitations in Rape Cases


In December of 2012 the Tennessee Supreme Court upheld the conviction of Jason Burdick who was convicted of the attempted rape of a Davidson County attorney despite the fact that the applicable statute of limitations had expired.

The attempted rape for which Burdick was convicted occurred in 1994. The applicable statute of limitations is 8 years, meaning that prosecution would normally be barred after 2002; however, Burdick was formally prosecuted in 2008, far after the limitations period had expired.

During the February 1994 attempted rape, the victim was able to bite off a piece of skin from Burdick's finger. That piece of skin was evaluated by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation who were able to develop a partial fingerprint as well as a DNA profile. At the time there was no match for the partial print in the database nor was there a DNA match in the Combined DNA Index System. Six years later on February 2, 2000 an Officer Rita Brockmann Baker filed an affidavit of complaint in the Davidson County General Sessions Court. The affidavit described the events of the February 1994 attack and named "John Doe" as the assailant. In addition to identifying the attacker as "John Doe" the affidavit of complaint contained a detailed DNA profile of "John Doe." As a result of the affidavit of complaint, an arrest warrant was issued for "John Doe" In April of 2006, a full 12 years after the offense the grand jury for Davidson County handed down a multi-count indictment charging that same "John Doe" with several crimes, including the 1994 attempted rape. Two years later in 2008 Davidson County police discovered a match to their partial print of "John Doe." That match belonged to Robert Burdick, whose print was taken when he applied for a job at the Department of Correction. Authorities were then able to match Burdick's palm print with one recovered from the 1994 attempted rape. Subsequent to obtaining a search warrant, police conducted a cheek swab of Burdick which yielded DNA results that matched the DNA from the skin bitten off by the victim in 1994.

As a result a superceding indictment was handed down by a Grand Jury in May of 2008, a full 14 years after the attack, and 6 years after the applicable statute of limitations had expired. After a two-day trial the Defendant, Jason Burdick was convicted of the 1994 attempted rape along with several other crimes. He immediately appealed. Statutes of Limitation require prosecution to commence within a certain period of time or else they are barred and cannot be prosecuted, in this case that time period was 8 years.

On appeal Burdick contended that the filing of a "John Doe" warrant was insufficient to commence prosecution and even if it was sufficient, it did not provide him with adequate notice. The Court of Criminal Appeals and the Tennessee Supreme Court disagreed. The Supreme Court held that when an unknown suspect can be identified by DNA left at the scene, a "John Doe" warrant is proper because the sex combined with DNA information are known. Further, the Statute of Limitations did not bar prosecution because all the state was knew the gender of the suspect and could identify him through his biological information. This creates a new rule in Tennessee by clarifying that prosecution is timely commenced so long as a warrant is issued within the limitations period and that warrant identifies the defendant by gender and his or her DNA profile.

This decision is interesting for many reasons and it turned on the interpretation of the purpose of a statute of limitations. Are statutes of limitation used to assure swift prosecution or are they designed to limit government, specifically prosecutors, from holding prosecution over the head of suspects indefinitely?

If you believe you may be the subject of a criminal prosecution or have questions about the use of statutes of limitations, please feel free to contact the experienced criminal defense attorneys at The Bowlin Law Firm today.




State v. Burdick, M2010-00144-SC-R11CD, 2012 WL 6587523 (Tenn. Dec. 18, 2012)