The Norman Police Department has identified a suspect in a 32-year-old case of rape for which another man was wrongfully convicted and spent years in prison.

The suspect, Gilbert Duane Harris, 58, of Biloxi, Miss., was identified after an Oklahoma Watch inquiry caused Norman police to request that DNA evidence from the 1982 rape of a University of Oklahoma student be run through the national DNA databank. That check, sought by the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation, got a match.

Norman police told Oklahoma Watch that the DNA evidence had also been run in 2006 and got the same match, but for some reason neither Norman Police nor the OSBI took further steps to investigate to the point of making an arrest.

Harris, 58, was charged Friday with first-degree rape and forcible sodomy.

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.

In the rape of the University of Oklahoma student, Thomas Webb, of Oklahoma City, who in 1982 was living in Norman, was originally arrested after the victim identified the then 22-year-old Webb from a photo lineup. Although Webb 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 17 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.

“I always wonder,” Webb said. “I would love to know who did this.”

The case remained cold until an inquiry and research by Oklahoma Watch into whether authorities had pursued other suspects after Webb was freed led to a discovery: In 2006, DNA had been entered into the national DNA databank and identified another suspect in the case, according to Norman police.

In August 2013, Norman police re-opened the case in August and, after re-verifying the DNA match, issued an arrest warrant for Harris.

 

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