On September 15, 1986, a 71-year-old woman was found raped and strangled to death in the small town of Hwaseong, the first in a series of ten deaths that came publicly to be known as the "Hwaseong serial murders". But an unexpected turn of recent events, as announced by the Korean National Police Agency on October 1, 2019, disrupted the case’s closed status and spawned another round of public debate on the rationality of the statute of limitations - a statute prescribing the maximum period of time after a crime for the bringing of legal action.
According to Soung Jae-hyeon, a Researcher at the Korean Institute of Criminology, technical limitations of Korean scientific investigations in the late 1900s and the lack of clear evidence derailed criminal arrests. Now, against the backdrop of advances in forensic investigative techniques, authorities at National Forensic Service were able to extract DNA from an extremely small grouping of preserved cells and cross analyze them with profiles in the DNA Database. They identified Lee Chun-jae, an inmate already serving a life sentence for the rape and murder of his 20-year- old sister-in-law in 1994. He confessed in the following days not only to the formally identified Hwaseong killings but also to four unidentified murders and 30 rapes or attempted rapes; the authenticity of which the police are verifying. Yet, the roadblock to punishing Lee remains: namely the expiration of the 15-year statute of limitations in 2006.
Legal Developments and the Mixed Reactions
In July 2015, the National Assembly passed the “Statute of Limitations for Murder Revocation Law”, also known as “Taewan Law”, abolishing the 25-year statute of limitations on first-degree murder. It is named after Kim Tae-wan, a six-year-old boy killed in 1999 by someone who poured sulfuric acid into his mouth. This case’s statute of limitations ran out in 2014, making it one of the most infamous cases that created political pressure for legal change. However, under the principle of non-retroactivity, cases that came before Taewan Law cannot be subject to the revision. Thus, the statute of limitation for the Hwaseong serial murders remains binding, even in the face of Lee’s recent admissions of guilt and the discovery of matching DNA in the database. In response to public indignation, lawmakers filed a special bill aimed at invalidating the statute of limitations for the Hwaseong serial murders on September 20, 2019. This invoked varying reactions from experts. Lee Soong-deok, a Professor in the Department of Forensic Medicine at Seoul National University College of Medicine, expressed deep discontent with the measure. He asserted, “The mere gesture of a ‘special’ bill in the legal arena erodes the principle of law. If this is pursued in complete absence of corresponding efforts to prevent unsolved criminal cases at the root level, it is a superficial, or even a populist, measure unlikely to bring about real change.” Jang Seung-hyeok, a Professor in Hanyang University School of Law, noted that apart from the need for criminal punishment, the special law possibly violates the constitution as it stamps upon Criminality and Punishability of Act in the Criminal Law. In a similar vein, Researcher Soung claimed that a law should not target an individual case but apply to all cases with equal binding force. “Establishing a special law for one particular case can potentially unleash a series of similar retroactive actions and thus undermine legal stability. It also contradicts Nulla poena sine lege (a principle of legality – no penalty without a law) and the principle of non-retroactivity of law. In this sense, I believe it would be extremely hard to punish Lee Chun-jae through the legislation.” But Researcher Soung perceives criminal justice to be made up of two interdependent branches: punishment for the offender and care for the victim. “The current punishment- centered legislative move simply intended to win public support does not aid the process of protecting the victims and our effort to simultaneously work toward the goal of crime prevention and criminal justice. An all-encompassing, systematic approach must be thought through and implemented rather than a temporary measure designed to sway public outcry in the short run.” The fact that the bill is a special, not a general, law is enough to dispel concerns related to legal stability and non-retroactivity of the 2015 revision, according to the advocates of the special bill. Imposing an appropriate penalty on Lee Chun-jae with a set of recently discovered data relevant to the case vividly reminds the public of what criminal justice looks like, while sending a strong message to killers in statute- barred cases whose abdication might have encouraged them to sustain their violent activities.
Statutes of Limitations in Other Countries
South Korea’s 2015 revision abolishing the statute of limitations for homicides does not apply to cases of second-degree murder, manslaughter, and other deaths resulting from accidents. Japan, in 2010, amended its Criminal Procedure Law (Law No. 131 of 1948) through Law No. 26 Article 3, abolishing the statute of limitations for murder as well as other crimes that result in deaths. Cases in which the statute of limitations had not run out can be subject to revision, even if it was committed well before the law’s enactment. Japan’s criminal law, in this sense, is highly akin to Korean law.
The United States allows differen- tiation of the length of limitation period according to the seriousness of the crime, from minor crimes carrying as little as a year to major ones with the maximum of 20 years. Accounting for differences in state law, it also identifies 159 types of crime that are not subject to the statute of limitations. With heavier focus on child protection than other countries, the U.S. does not impose a prescription period for offenses related to child abduction, pornography, and sex trafficking. There is also no statute of limitations for federal crimes punishable by death, nor for federal crimes of terrorism. It is noticeable that depending on the nature of the crime, the applicable period of limitation is extended or even suspended in the U.S. In Germany, crimes of genocide and premeditated murder do not carry a time bar, whereas France similarly does not impose a prescription period for crimes against humanity and genocide. The United Kingdom is an anomaly in that it does not have the principle of statute of limitations embedded in its legal system. It instead operates in a way that makes exceptions to minor criminal cases. This means that unless the statute has explicitly stated otherwise, the offence carries no time bar. The infamous case of Jack the Ripper, the notorious serial killer who terrorized London in the late 19th century, still remains under investigation. Recent genetic analysis of a stained silk shawl confirming the culprit was published just this year in March; and emerging opinions note that the evidence is still insufficient to declare the century-old case formally closed.
Encouraged Direction for Improvement
Researcher Soung Jae-hyeon explains that statutes of limitations are intended to protect defendants from false claims, hazy memories, and dispersed evidence all precipitated by the passage of time. “It is based primarily on the idea that by the time the claim is litigated after decades of silence, the evidence might have been lost or decayed and memories faded to the point that they cannot serve as legitimate evidence of guilt in court.” This is why, according to Soung, the statute of limitation is a criminal procedure that is in the greatest proximity to society’s scientific progress. As technological advances in forensic investigation now allows evidence to be properly and safely preserved at a level never seen in the past, statutes of limitations must undergo necessary modifications with the pace of current scientific development in mind. Soung additionally argued, “The autho- rities must institutionally maintain a collection of criminals’ biometric data and ensure that the database stays firmly under the guard net so as to avert a data leak. What is also needed is the big data system that allows cross-analysis of the enrolled DNAs, which is something that no individual agency can do alone but requires strategic engagement and cooperation among multiple agencies.” Professor Lee stated that in spite of ever- advancing investigative tools, decades- old or even some recent cases continue to stay “cold”, which is the cause of our debate on the statute of limitations in the first place. He stated, “Unresolved cases are indicative of defects in the investigation process. Efforts to minimize those defects must be enhanced, so that the cases do not remain unsolved.”