The Idaho Innocence Project (IIP), led by Boise State Associate Professor Greg Hampikian and his Co-Director Robin Long, have been exonerating wrongly convicted prisoners since 2005, most recently, a prisoner of 26 years in Michigan, Lacino Hamilton, was freed on Sept. 30.
“After 20 years, I can do these results pretty quickly, and this one didn’t need any fancy computing. We have $60,000 software to look at this stuff, but this was just obvious,” Hampikian said.
Hamilton was wrongly convicted of murder 26 years ago and the evidence that exonerated him was a small amount of biological material under the victim’s finger nails, presumably from self-defense.
“There’s a man’s DNA there, and it excludes Lacino Hamilton, he cannot possibly be this man,” Hampikian said.
Hampikian and his team use DNA forensic evidence to prove the innocence of prisoners. DNA is complex and it can be difficult to confirm who the DNA belongs to, however, it is relatively easy with access to complex, specialized machinery to determine if DNA does not belong to somebody.
“It’s ‘Les Miserables’, it’s ‘The Count of Monte Cristo’, it’s Jesus, it’s the innocent person who’s being convicted, and of course you want to help them.… That’s the worst situation we can imagine in the criminal justice system,.” Hampikian said.
DNA has a number of genes that have repeating patterns of nucleic acids. How many times these patterns repeat are something almost unique to individuals. If the sequence repeats 15 times in the suspect, but the perpetrator’s gene repeats 17 times, then the suspect and perpetrator cannot be the same person.
The IIP team uses a combination of this scientific evidence and legal work to help free those serving time they should not be through Hampikian’s scientific evidence and Long’s legal expertise.
Long is the co-director of the project and is focused on the legal side of the process.
“I started my career as a prosecutor right out of law school and later did some criminal defense. As I became more experienced, I saw some of the issues with our criminal justice system and decided I wanted to volunteer for IIP,” Long said.
She explains that some evidence that is brought into court can be false or misleading, including false witness identification, false confessions, etc.
“I think all of us that may sit in a jury should know about evidence, what is reliable, what isn’t, ” Long said.
Hampikian started working on the Georgia Innocence Project, and when he came to Idaho he expanded on a project that law students at the University of Idaho had begun, but were struggling to get momentum with.
“I offered to bring it down here and raise some money. The hope being that we could someday have a giant project with them at the law school,” Hampikian said.
The IIP is also working to push legislation that would help the prisoners. When the prisoners are exonerated, they have little more than the clothes on their back after spending so much of their life in a prison that they should not have been in. Laws to help compensate these exonerated people are being pushed.
The IIP falls under the Forensic Justice Project.
“We get cases from all over the state, and now all over the world. We have cases in Israel and one in Japan,” Hampikian said.
The project gets a room provided by Boise State in the science building for their equipment and office work, but otherwise is paid almost exclusively through grants and is always receiving donations as well as volunteer work. People are welcome to offer their support through their website or Facebook.
Hampikian makes it clear that there is a large team working on these cases, not just him.
“I don’t think I have ever been part of an exoneration that had fewer than 30 people who really deserve a part of the history,” Hampikian said.