The state is asking the U.S. Supreme Court to re-examine a previous ruling and let Ronald Dwight Tipton, a child rape suspect, be tried in Yellowstone County.
In a petition filed Wednesday, the Montana Attorney General’s Office asked the nation’s high court to review a ruling it made in 2003 that has blocked the prosecution of a man accused of climbing through a bathroom window at night and raping an 8-year-old three times. A Billings teenager was wrongfully convicted in the high-profile case and spent nearly 15 years in prison before DNA evidence exonerated him.
Montana Attorney General Tim Fox said he could see no reason why, given the advancements in DNA evidence technology and the “heinous” nature of sexual crimes against children, that suspects “should be able to get away with that. We know who they are. We should be able to take them to trial,” he said, in an interview with The Billings Gazette.
The U.S. Supreme Court grants just a fraction of the thousands of petitions for writ of certiorari it receives each year, but Fox said the odds improve when a state attorney general is behind the request — and are even better when other states weigh in with support, as Fox expects to see in the Tipton case.
The case against Tipton has made headlines since 2014, when state officials got a DNA hit on evidence from the 1987 rape case. Yellowstone County prosecutors filed charges within a year of the match, as required under Montana law for cases in which the statute of limitations has expired, and the case was set for trial.
But in a unanimous ruling from July, the Montana Supreme Court ordered the charges dismissed, saying U.S. Supreme Court precedent barred them from letting the case proceed. They cited a 2003 ruling that prevented prosecutors from bringing new charges against a defendant after the statute of limitations expires.
Fox’s office said the ruling was overly broad, and needed to be overruled or limited in order to bring perpetrators to justice.
Fox said the consequences of the current law have had “disastrous results” in cases similar to Tipton’s.
That includes a case out of Kansas, where a man convicted of raping and killing a 73 year-old woman later had his rape conviction tossed. Defense attorneys in that case cited the same 2003 U.S. Supreme Court ruling now at issue in the Tipton case.
“We think this comes up rather frequently in the grand scheme of things,” Fox said.
DNA evidence has improved greatly since 1987. In Tipton’s case, there is a 1 in 2.6 quadrillion chance that the semen found in the child rape case does not belong to Tipton, according to Fox's petition.
The federal government, Montana and at least 14 other states have passed laws to account for advancements in DNA science, letting prosecutors bring charges after DNA identifies a suspect, regardless of whether the statute of limitations has expired. In most states, prosecutors have only one to three years to act.
Linda Glantz came forward in a series of Lee Montana articles in 2017 as the victim in the 1987 rape case.
Glantz said the petition made her hopeful her rapist could still be brought to justice. But beyond the legal possibilities, Glantz said she was grateful for the support she’s received since going public with her story. That includes hearing from other rape survivors.
“It’s amazing how many people have shared their stories with me, either through Facebook or in person,” she said. “It’s actually been pretty overwhelming. I think once people find what they would consider a safe space to talk about it, then the flood gates kind of open.”
Tipton’s defense attorney now has 30 days to file a response to the state’s petition. If the U.S. Supreme Court grants the review, Fox said he would expect oral arguments to be heard in the spring, although there is no deadline.