The statute of limitations can prevent a suspect from being prosecuted for a crime committed too far in the past -- even if he or she admits responsibility.
There is typically no time limit for prosecuting a suspect for serious crimes such as murder, but there are always exceptions to this rule. Former FBI agent John J. Connolly Jr. had his murder conviction thrown out after a Florida appellate court ruled that the statute of limitations prevented him from being charged.
So is there really a statute of limitations on murder?
No General Time Limit for Murder
While the federal government and most states impose no time limit on murder charges, there is nothing legally preventing this practice from changing. This means a murder charge can be filed even decades after the alleged killing has occurred.
Having no statute of limitations on murder allows law enforcement to occasionally solve and prosecute "cold cases." This has become especially pertinent with the continuing advances in DNA evidence, which can pinpoint a killer many years after the crime.
And Then There's Connolly
In Florida, there is currently no statute of limitations for any felony which results in death, capital felony, or felony for which the punishment could be life in prison. You may think this would mean that all murders in Florida are outside the statute of limitations, but not so fast.
Second degree murder in Florida may only be punishable by a maximum term of 30 years -- as a first-degree felony. And there is a statute of limitations for first-degree felonies: five years. Connolly, had been charged with a first-degree murder in 2005 in connection with a killing in 1982 related to mobster Whitey Bulger.
First-degree murder has no statute of limitations, but Connolly was only convicted of the lesser-included charge of second degree murder. Despite the state's attempt to classify the charge as a "life felony" because of the use of a firearm, an appellate court ruled that the second degree murder charge was properly a first-degree felony.
Since first-degree felonies in Florida are barred from prosecution after five years (and only four in 1982), Connolly's murder conviction was tossed out.
Connolly's case may be the exception that proves the rule, but Florida may be tweaking its laws just in case.