NORMAN — The Cleveland County district attorney’s office has charged a suspect in a 32-year-old case of rape for which another man was wrongfully convicted and spent more than 13 years in prison.
The suspect, Gilbert Duane Harris, 58, of Biloxi, Miss., was identified after an Oklahoma Watch inquiry last year caused the Norman Police Department to request a national DNA database check related to the 1982 rape of a University of Oklahoma student. That check, sought by the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation, matched Harris’ DNA with DNA evidence from the rape, but authorities say it took months to verify and follow up.
Norman police told Oklahoma Watch that DNA evidence from the rape also had been linked to Harris’ DNA in 2006 after Louisiana authorities encountered Harris and entered his DNA in the national database. The match was reported to Oklahoma authorities but for some reason the Cleveland County district attorney’s office did not take further steps to pursue charges.
“That information was reported by the state of Louisiana to OSBI, which in turn reported it not to the Norman Police Department as best as we can tell, but to the district attorney’s office. It’s at that point in 2006 that the case appears to end,” said Norman police Capt. Tom Easley. Asked whether he knew what happened, Easley said, “Don’t know, can’t explain it. ... That is the $64,000 question.”
Cleveland County First Assistant District Attorney Susan Caswell said her staff began pursuing the case actively after being notified sometime last year about a new DNA match linking Harris to the 1982 crime.
She said she could not comment on what happened after the initial match in 2006 because neither she nor District Attorney Greg Mashburn were working in the Cleveland County office at the time.
“Once we got information and the (Norman) police department got information, they began their investigation,” Caswell said. “We ultimately determined that we had sufficient information to file charges.”
Harris, 58, is charged with first-degree rape and forcible sodomy. He has not yet been arrested in Mississippi. He denied involvement in the rape to a Norman detective.
It’s unclear why authorities believe they can pursue charges in a rape case that occurred 32 years ago. The statute of limitations for rape is 12 years, but various factors, such as the involvement of DNA, whether a suspect left the state and which year’s version of the statute of limitations should be used, can come into play.
Caswell said her office was convinced it could prosecute the case despite the passage of time. “We feel confident we can proceed with the case with the statutes of limitations as we’re aware of them,” she said.
The case points to a national issue regarding what happens after people who are wrongfully convicted are later exonerated, often because of DNA testing. In more than half the 316 DNA exoneration cases nationwide over the past two decades, the real perpetrator has not been convicted or identified. In some cases, authorities neglected to follow up; in others they chose not to pursue the case for legal reasons or because they still felt the exonerated person was guilty, legal experts say.
The rape of the OU student occurred in March 1982 when a man gained entry to the victim’s Norman apartment after she went to bed, struck her, threatened her with a knife, and sexually assaulted her. She later identified Thomas Webb, of Oklahoma City, who in 1982 was living in Norman, from a photo lineup as the rapist. Although Webb, who was then 22, had an alibi and no history of sexual assault, he was arrested, convicted, and sentenced to 60 years in prison.
In 1996, after more than 13 years behind bars, Webb fought for DNA testing, and the test excluded him as the rapist in the case. He was released from prison. For 18 years, police didn’t arrest another suspect, leaving both Webb and the victim in the case in the dark about who had committed the crime that scarred their lives.
Reached at his home Monday, Webb said he felt “relief” at the charges. “I had no idea who was the person I was doing time for, who was the person who changed my life like this.”
After Webb’s exoneration, it would be six years, in 2002, before the DNA evidence from the rape case was entered into the national DNA database. In 2006, Harris had an encounter with Louisiana law enforcement that led to authorities there comparing his DNA with profiles in the national database. A match with the Norman rape case came back. Louisiana sent a letter to OSBI, which forwarded it to the Cleveland County DA’s office.
The case remained cold until an inquiry by Oklahoma Watch into whether authorities had pursued other suspects after Webb led Norman police to re-open the case in August 2013.
In a court affidavit filed Friday, Norman police Detective Corey Lambrecht said with the help of the Biloxi, Miss., police department, he obtained a mouth swab from Harris. OSBI confirmed a match from the swab to DNA evidence collected from the rape scene.
“I recently interviewed Gilbert Harris at the Biloxi PD,” Lambrecht wrote in the affidavit. “He admits he lived in Norman, does not remember the victim and denied this allegation. “
While Webb was behind bars, Harris was implicated in another rape case.
In August 1983, about seven months after Webb’s conviction, the then-27-year-old Harris raped a Norman girl who was under the age of 14, according to Cleveland County Court records.
Harris, who court records show worked as a sanitation worker for the city of Norman at the time, was arrested and later made a plea deal with the Cleveland County district attorney’s office.
As part of the plea deal, in October 1983 Harris was sentenced to seven years in prison, according to court records.
Earlier that year, Harris had pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges of delivering marijuana and a felony charge of knowingly concealing stolen property, the latter of which resulted in a four-year deferred sentence.
Court records show that, before the rape of the Norman girl, Harris previously had lived in Shreveport, La., Dallas and El Paso, Texas.
In 1991, Harris was convicted in Oklahoma County of second-degree burglary and possession of a firearm after a prior felony conviction, and spent a little more than four years in prison.
Assistant District Attorney Caswell said circumstances involved in the Webb and Harris cases were somewhat unique.
“It’s certainly unusual to have somebody wrongfully incarcerated for a time, then exonerated, then the real suspect identified,” she said. “We just haven’t had that happen very often.”
Contributing: Oklahoma Watch’s Warren Vieth and Clifton Adcock
Oklahoma Watch is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media service that produces in-depth and investigative journalism on public-policy issues facing the state. For more Oklahoma Watch content, go to www.oklahomawatch.org.