Since 2016, the authors have been funded by a DOJ Bloodsworth Grant to use probabilistic genotyping (TrueAllele) and other DNA analysis methods to help free the wrongfully convicted. They have helped overturn 3 convictions (a 4th expected soon). Working with the Montana Innocence Project, the authors helped exonerate two men in 2018 who were convicted of murder and had each served more than two decades in prison. In that case, new DNA analysis has led police to investigate a man who is already serving time for a similar crime.
In his presentation at ISHI, Greg Hampikian (Executive Director of The Idaho Innocence Project) will highlight past and current forensic practices that can lead to wrongful convictions, and show how reanalysis can overturn these wrongful convictions. He will also discuss the importance of separating evidence and reference samples, of photographing all serology and microscopy results, and avoiding potentially misleading jargon such as “sperm fraction,” and “very weak positive” without clear documentary evidence.
We sat down with Greg and asked him how cases are chosen by the Idaho Innocence Project and the steps involved in re-opening a case.
Hi Greg, thank you for talking with us today. No one wants to imagine that the wrong person has been convicted of a crime, and newer technologies have allowed some wrongs to be made right, which I’m looking forward to learning more about in your presentation.
I imagine there are many incarcerated persons who would like to have evidence in their case re-examined. How are cases vetted and chosen by the Idaho Innocence Project?
Each project is different. At the Idaho Innocence Project, we get about 100 letters per year from Idaho prisoners requesting help, and an equal amount from other states or overseas. I work with projects across the country and overseas in addition to the Idaho Innocence Project. My lab at Boise State University is currently working on about 20 active cases, with a number of others in the very early stages.
Once the Idaho Innocence Project decides to take on a case, what steps are involved with re-examining the evidence, and ultimately overturning a conviction?
The first steps are often the most challenging: identifying evidence and getting permission to test it. This can last many years, with agencies often at first denying that old evidence still exists. We have found evidence in odd places, like parts of swabs taped in lab notebooks, or a microscope slide kept in a prosecutor’s desk. I have spent days with students digging in a swamp, looking for a twenty year-old shirt button. We also interview witnesses, examine old records. The project lawyers handle the legal aspects in court, and I testify as a DNA expert. In a sense, we operate more like prosecutors than defense teams. We are simply looking for the truth, and can leave a case if DNA results confirm guilt, just as a prosecutor must drop a case when he or she becomes convinced of innocence.
What new technologies have been most useful in overturning convictions? How have these technologies been employed?
Lately, for us it is probabilistic genotyping (we use TrueAllele software). We have also successfully used other technologies like the new more sensitive DNA profiling kits and expanded Y-STR testing. We helped overturn a Y-STR conviction that we demonstrated was a coincidental match. We were pioneers in trying genealogical testing with Y-STR matches to surnames, but genealogical testing really did not come into its own until recently with public single nucleotide polymorphism (SNP) databases. It is amazing that these home tests, consumer genealogy kits, are not yet available in any crime lab, but are solving many cold cases.
In the cases that you’ve worked, have you seen any patterns? Are there any techniques that were used in the past that have a tendency of leading to faulty convictions?
Aggressive interrogations, bite marks (on flesh), comparative hair analysis, snitch testimony, faulty line up procedures, Brady violations (withheld evidence), poor lawyering, racially imbalanced juries. But I have to say that faulty DNA practices are starting to take a toll: unreliable complex DNA mixture analysis, contamination of minute quantities of DNA, the drive for ever greater lab efficiency at the cost of cutting corners–like processing DNA samples from suspects right next to the evidence, or not photographing subjective lab results (serology and microscopy).
Your abstract mentions the exoneration of Darryl Pinkins and Roosevelt Glenn in 2016. Aside from this case, are there certain cases that stick with you more than others? Could you describe such a time?
All the ones where people are still in prison. We did have some great success in Montana working with the Montana Innocence Project this year. Two men (Freddie Lawrence and Paul Jenkins) freed after 23 years, and we identified a new suspect through his DNA on the rope used in the murder.
I am also working with the Georgia Innocence Project and the Southern Center on a case from 1977 where there I believe racial bias, and a false confession from a mentally challenged man resulted in a wrongful conviction. That case, Johnnie Lee Gates is being decided in GA. We presented new DNA evidence in court, and the judge is expected to rule soon.
You have been very involved with various Innocence Projects and have founded the Idaho Innocence Project. What drew you to this line of work and how did you first get started?
Henry Lee, a pioneer in the forensic DNA, was a good friend of my Ph.D. advisor, Linda Strausbaugh. Linda was a drosophila geneticist, but very good at translational thinking. Her collaboration with Henry in the 1980s helped establish Connecticut as a center for forensic DNA. In fact, 4 of the 6 of us in Linda’s lab at the time went on to forensics. I was the last to join the fold. First, I worked on the male sex-determining gene, joining Jenny Graves lab in Australia through a wonderful NSF postdoctoral fellowship, and later working at the CDC on mosquito sex determination. In 1991 some of the alumni from Linda’s lab asked me about developing a test for male DNA, and that got me interested in forensics. I started using forensics to teach molecular biology at Clayton State, and then got a grant to use it in high schools in the 1990’s . We had very elaborate set ups, one year the kids used ketchup pack “blood” on the Vice principal, and the whole school was in on a “murder” investigation. Good Morning America and the Wall Street Journal came down, Charles Krauthammer was quoted in one tv interview comparing it to using porn to teach biology. That was all before there were school shootings, and I think we switched to theft scenarios after that. In 1999 I wrote a book with a man freed by DNA through the Innocence Project in NY. Calvin Johnson Jr. had spent 17 years in prison for a rape that he did not commit. When he was freed I was working a Clayton State and the CDC, very close to where the rape had occurred. I invited Calvin for a talk at the University, and began writing the first chapter of our book as he spoke to the students. After that I consulted on some DNA cases, began attending meetings like ISHI, and eventually established a lab to work on cases. Investigating claims of innocence has remained a very important part of my work.
What do you feel is the biggest challenge that forensic laboratories are facing today?
Success. DNA was so trusted, and errors so rarely reversed (by acquittals or exonerations), that some bad practices have emerged. I am deeply troubled that many crime labs have abandoned some common sense practices. For example, it is shocking that some labs do not photograph subjective lab tests like semen detection (colorimetric), and sperm micrographs. There is no way to check or question their work. Even parking tickets now come with photo proof–those are $25 tickets, not 25 years to life. Worse still, some labs are processing suspect’s reference DNA samples, at the same time as evidence samples. There is no reason for this. All evidence samples should be processed to completion, before reference DNA is even brought into the lab area. Testing is so sensitive that even a single cell accidentally transferred to an evidence sample can lead to irreversible and undetectable contamination. The best labs follow those two simple rules: Photo all subjective results, and process all case evidence through the lab, before bringing reference samples into it.
What tips would you give to someone who is just starting out in the forensics field, or what is the best advice that you’ve received?
Be the best scientist you can be. Major in a core science–don’t declare forensics, be a molecular biologist, a chemist, materials scientist, engineer, computer scientist, medical doctor. You can later on apply any of those to forensics. Forensics is not a science, it is an application of science. I think that young people can only want to major in what they have heard about. Unfortunately, there are not 20 shows based on Material Science, or one called Cell Biology Special Investigations Unit.
For those still deciding whether to attend, what is your favorite thing about ISHI, or what are you most looking forward to this year?
It is THE meeting for Forensic DNA. The poster sessions are best, because you can make friends and ask really simple questions without 200 people hearing you. When I bring students we play a game to see how many business cards and quick stories we can collect in a day.
What’s one thing that others may not know about you?
I’ve published satire in the New York Times.
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