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Idaho Innocence Project loses federal funding

BOISE – Sarah Pearce, a young Idaho woman convicted of savagely beating a motorist in 2003 in what may be a wrongful conviction based on mistaken identity, has a key hearing coming up in February that could win her a new trial.

Christopher Tapp, convicted in 1996 of an Idaho Falls murder in which DNA points to a different perpetrator, has the victim’s mother among his advocates seeking to free him and find the real killer.

But the Idaho Innocence Project, which has worked on both cases for at least five years, learned this month that its federal funding won’t be renewed. The project, housed at Boise State University, will continue to work on both those cases, but won’t take any more.

“We haven’t left anybody high and dry, but there are other prisoners writing us, and I’m sending out form letters saying our intake is on hold,” said project director Greg Hampikian, a Boise State University professor of biology and criminal justice and a DNA expert. “Every week, I get calls from the mothers.”

The Idaho Innocence Project was awarded two multiyear grants from the U.S. Department of Justice’s Wrongful Conviction Review Program, in 2009 and 2011, for work to represent people who potentially have been wrongfully convicted. Those grants, totaling nearly $450,000, allowed the hiring of a staff attorney and legal assistants; law students and others also participate. But this year, when the project applied for the next round of grants, 38 groups applied and just eight were accepted. Boise State wasn’t among them.

“I’m busy trying to find out where I can get funding,” Hampikian said. The project receives some other grants and donations; it gets no state allocations. A portion of its grants go to BSU to cover indirect costs such as use of university office space.

Innocence projects like BSU’s started in 1992, when the first Innocence Project formed in New York to tap new DNA technology to determine if prisoners had been wrongly convicted. To date, more than 300 have been freed as a result, many after long terms of wrongful imprisonment.

Hampikian worked with the Georgia Innocence Project before he moved to Idaho, then established the Idaho Innocence Project at BSU in 2005. “We work on cases all over the country, because I’m the only DNA expert that’s heading one of these projects,” Hampikian said. “Almost all of this is volunteer work.”

He’s been in the news for his work on the Amanda Knox case, involving the young Washington woman who was convicted, then freed on appeal after four years in prison, for the murder of her roommate while both were exchange students in Italy.

Hampikian has pending patents and has done research work on contamination theories related to DNA; his work led him to conclude that DNA evidence was mishandled in Knox’s case and led to a wrongful conviction. He consulted with Knox’s defense team and co-wrote a report on the case, but the Italian court didn’t allow it to be submitted, relying instead on its own court-appointed DNA experts, who reached similar conclusions.

Hampikian said errors happen in criminal cases. “The fact of the matter is it’s a process that will always have a significant degree of error,” he said. “I don’t think it’s that anyone’s unjust.” It’s “human nature,” he said, to try to find answers and to right wrongs, and sometimes that process goes awry.

Idaho’s highest-profile DNA exoneration case came in 2001, before Hampikian arrived. Death row inmate Charles Fain, a Vietnam veteran who had been convicted of raping and murdering a 9-year-old girl based on hairs found on the victim that resembled his, was cleared of involvement in the crime when the same hairs were DNA tested. He was released from prison after 18 years.

The Idaho Innocence Project last year sponsored a well-received seminar for Idaho law enforcement officials on best practices in eyewitness identification; questionable identification in a video lineup was what snared Sarah Pearce.

The victim in that case had reported that the woman who joined her three male attackers was petite, pretty and spoke Spanish to one of the men, who could have been her boyfriend. Pearce is 5 feet 6 inches tall, doesn’t date men, was 17 at the time, and doesn’t speak Spanish. Also, 30 minutes after a witness claimed to have spotted Pearce at a motel with the three men, a group matching the attackers’ descriptions – three Hispanic men and a Hispanic woman in a maroon car – used the victim’s stolen credit card 60 miles away in Jordan Valley, Ore.

In the Tapp case in Idaho Falls, Tapp, who at first maintained his innocence, confessed to participating in the killing of Angie Dodge after more than 13 hours of interrogation by police. He agreed to name the murderer in exchange for immunity. But the numerous names he supplied never matched the DNA at the crime scene; he ended up being the only one convicted in the case.

“You cannot exhaust people and expect to get the truth,” Hampikian said. “That’s why about 25 to 30 percent of DNA exonerations include false confessions or incriminating statements by the victims of these wrongful convictions.”

The staff attorney for the Idaho Innocence Project has agreed to continue working Sarah Pearce’s case; Hampikian is scrambling to find a way to pay him, at least in part. In Tapp’s case, the national Innocence Project from New York has stepped in; Hampikian is continuing the DNA work in the case.

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