National News

DNA Helps New York Police Solve Infamous 1994 Rape Case

Posted January 9, 2018 7:52 p.m. EST

NEW YORK — The case raised fears in New York City in 1994, when a woman was raped at 5:30 p.m. in Prospect Park while carrying groceries home. But what happened next prompted an uproar: A high-profile newspaper columnist, citing questions raised by police investigators about the woman’s account, said it was a hoax.

When semen was discovered on the woman’s jogging shorts, the columnist, Mike McAlary of The Daily News, found his career on the ropes. The episode even figured in a play, starring Tom Hanks, about McAlary’s storied life that hit Broadway 15 years after the tabloid writer died of cancer in 1998.

No one was ever accused of being the rapist, however, until Tuesday, when the police said that technology unavailable in 1994 had allowed them to match the suspect’s DNA with a serial rapist serving life in prison in Sing Sing.

Even though the suspect, James Edward Webb, 67, cannot be charged because of an old statute of limitations, the remarkable announcement brought a small, final measure of closure to a case that had roiled the city and spurred a debate about journalistic integrity.

A team of cold case detectives that focuses on sex crimes solved the case using newly developed enhanced DNA testing, said Stephen P. Davis, the Police Department’s chief spokesman.

“Our cold case squad is constantly trying to re-evaluate cases on a periodic basis," Davis said Tuesday. “And especially when new advances in DNA testing become available. Some of the ability to do these tests didn’t exist years ago.”

With the mystery presumptively solved, the outcome offers no real practical resolution: The attack, on April 26, 1994, occurred more than a decade before New York state law was changed, in 2006, to eliminate the statute of limitations in rape cases.

“We hope that this knowledge brings a measure of closure to the victim and some comfort in knowing that this individual is behind bars, will remain there and won’t harm anyone else,” Oren Yaniv, a spokesman for the Brooklyn district attorney’s office, said in a statement. “Unfortunately, we are bound by the statute of limitations, which expired well over a decade ago, making criminal charges legally impossible.”

Martin Garbus, the lawyer for the victim, wrote a scathing Op-Ed piece in The New York Times in 2013 after seeing “Lucky Guy,” the Broadway show that lionized McAlary. He said Tuesday that “the trauma from the news stories was nearly as great as the trauma from the rape; she had to live with those stories for 23 years.”

“The detective said it was my piece, in The Times, on the play, that led him to begin to think about reopening the case," Garbus said, adding that no one has yet apologized to the woman.

Garbus conceded there was little officials could do now, legally. He said the woman, who is now 51 and married with two children, “feels relieved” about the police breakthrough in her case, but was declining to speak about the matter. Garbus would not say what she does for a living, though she was pursing an acting career at the time of the attack. He said that she now lives “in the metropolitan area.”

“She was called a liar," Garbus said. “So she feels good about her vindication. She doesn’t have to walk along the streets any longer and fear that someone is going to call her a liar. But what happened to her is terrible.”

McAlary, a dominant tabloid reporter, went on to write a series of columns in The Daily News on the brutalization of Abner Louima by officers in Brooklyn, which earned him a Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 1998, months before he died at age 41. A libel suit that Garbus had brought against him on behalf of the woman was dismissed in 1997 after a judge ruled that McAlary was entitled to First Amendment protections to write about what the police had told him.

Webb has a long criminal history: He was arrested for at least 10 sex offenses from 1968 to 1995, the police said. In 1995, he was charged with raping four women and attempting to rape a fifth, according to law enforcement officials and court records. He was convicted in October 1997 in connection with all five cases, and sentenced in December 1997 to 75 years to life in prison.

Davis, the police spokesman, said it was important to close the Prospect Park rape case, even with an expired statute of limitations.

“It’s an open case," Davis said. “We want closure on it. We want to try to do everything we can to show that we are going to fully investigate these things as thoroughly as we can.”