OK Prosecutors Hoping Charges Could Stand In 32-Year-Old Crime

Wednesday, July 16th 2014, 7:04 pm
By: News 9

An alleged rapist avoided jail for more than 30 years while an innocent man served time for the crime.

The crime dates back to 1982. The rape of a student at the University of Oklahoma was pinned on an innocent man, Thomas Webb. He was wrongfully convicted and spent 13 years in prison. By 1996, Webb was exonerated.

Six years later, in 2002, DNA evidence was entered into a national database. In 1996, the DNA was linked to Gilbert Harris, 58, of Biloxi, Miss.

The evidence was sent to Oklahoma authorities, but the case fell through the cracks. Harris remained a free man. It wasn't until investigative reporters at Oklahoma Watch pushed for new DNA testing, in 2013, that Harris was connected to the crime.

Harris was charged with one count of first-degree rape and one count of forcible oral sodomy in Cleveland County, Okla. In Oklahoma, the statute of limitations in a rape case is 12 years. If everything was done by the book, it would be nearly impossible to try Harris, who's now accused of the 32-year-old crime.

"The real issue I see now…there is a very serious issue about statute of limitations on rape," said Irven Box, defense attorney for Webb.

While Box and his client would like to see the actual perpetrator brought to justice. Box knows the statute of limitation can be extended three years from the date a DNA match is made, but he is concerned the problem could lie in which DNA match the court decides to look at. The match made in 2006 or 2013.

"A defense attorney may come in and get a judge to agree that the statute has run and this guy is guilty as sin, but we can’t do anything with him," said Box.

Cleveland County Prosecutors are confident they will be able to circumvent the statute of limitations, if it becomes an issue. Prosecutors pointed to the exception that can be made when a suspect flees the jurisdiction, as Harris did in this case.

Harris was arrested in Mississippi and is currently fighting extradition back to Oklahoma.