Innocence Project loses funding

Sarah Pearce, convicted in 2003 of beating a motorist, and Christopher Tapp, convicted of rape and murder in 1998, are hoping for good news. Their appeals are being helped by the Idaho Innocence Project (IIP). Greg Hampikian, director of IIP, and his team are working to free both Pearce and Tapp.

However the IIP will not be able to take on new cases for a while.

In 2009 and 2011 the IIP received grants from the Department of Justice totaling nearly $450,000. This money was used to run the program and pay the needed employees. In November the IIP found out they would not receive a grant for 2014. Using reserve funds the IIP will continue to work on Pearce and Tapp’s cases, but they are unable to accept new cases until further notice.

“I think most of the people who got grants are probably people I know in the Innocence Network,” Hampikian said. “They all do great work. It was competitive… I’m not totally discouraged.  It’s not that we’re not up to snuff, it’s just gotten very competitive.”

The lack of funding is a growing problem across the United States. While the demand for money continues to increase, the amount of grants being issued has not.

“The government just isn’t investing in research the way it used to,” said Mark Rudin, vice president for research in an interview in April. “On the other hand, the demand for these grants is really higher than we’ve ever seen it before… That (research) is a real claim to fame for a university.”

What this means for IIP

The majority of the IIP grant was used to pay the salary of an attorney who researched cases and represented clients in court. Without an attorney or paid staff, the IIP won’t be forced to shut its doors but the kind of work they are able to do will change dramatically.

Hampikian, who is employed as a professor at Boise State, will continue to do DNA analysis and consult on cases around the world. However the IIP can only assist on cases that already have an attorney working on them.

Many of the internship opportunities at the IIP will also be placed on hold. Most of the interns work under the staff attorney. When his or her position can no longer be funded, theirs will dry up as well.

“I think it sucks,” said David Grantis, who graduated from Boise State in May and is now enrolled at Concordia Law School. “I was hoping to apply for an internship there next year. Their goal is noble and the experience would be simply invaluable.”


 The road forward

The IIP will continue to look for alternate sources of funding. Donations are accepted, they continue to hold fundraisers and they may make another push to qualify for a grant from the Kirk Bloodsworth Post conviction DNA Testing Program.

However to receive a Bloodworth grant, a state must certify that reasonable measures are taken to collect and preserve biological evidence—a standard Idaho has failed to meet. Idaho does not have a preservation statute and Attorney General Lawrence Wasden has refused to certify that Idaho meets the requirements.

While Hampikian is willing to do whatever it takes to keep the IIP up and running he admits it is frustrating.

“We’ll get through it but it is hard. It’s like we’re back where we started in 2006… Every minute I spend out there (fundraising) is a minute I’m not working on cases,” Hampikian said.

While Hampikian has no current plans to leave Boise State, he admits that at times he is tempted by offers from bigger programs, and, if forensic justice doesn’t receive funding in upcoming years it would be difficult to stay. There is a lot more the IIP could do with long term support.

“I have to do what I was called to do.  I can still do the out-of-state and international DNA work, and that’s very satisfying,” Hampikian said. “At first everyone is attracted to the narrative. It’s Jean Val Jean. It’s the Count of Monte Cristo. But these cases take a long time, often 10-12 years to resolve.”

About the author  ⁄ Emily Pehrson

Emily Pehrson

Emily Pehrson is working as the managing editor for The Arbiter. She is junior at Boise State with a double major in English and Communication. When not working or in class, Pehrson can be found watching sports with her brother via Skype. She recently became a very proud first-time aunt and adores showering the baby girl with gifts while insisting that dinosaurs are gender neutral. Follow her on Twitter @EmilyPehrson