It is a packed hall at the College of Western Idaho in Nampa, where I am speaking about DNA exonerations. My hosts did an excellent job advertising, and the room is filled with extra chairs — people siting in the aisles and standing in the back.
As the executive director of the Idaho Innocence Project, I was invited by a criminal justice professor to speak about innocent people in prison. On the way to the lecture, I called Charles Fain, who spent 19 years on Idaho’s death row. He was just getting off work at the box company. He sounded tired but said he would see what he could do. Fain is an innocent man who spent two decades waiting to be executed for the kidnapping, rape and killing of a 9-year-old girl in Nampa.
The audience listens attentively to me for 45 minutes before I spot Charles at the back of the room and invite him to the stage. I’m done. As he makes his way, I ask the assembly, “Who here believes in the death penalty?” About a third raise their hands. Among them is Charles, who is a conservative Christian and believes that the Bible mandates capital punishment. While I disagree with his view (and his exegesis), I can’t help being moved by his hard-earned opinion and unflappable authenticity.
Even before he speaks, the audience is rapt. I know from personal experience that hearing a man who suffered a wrongful conviction can change your life. That’s how I got started: Calvin Johnson, 1999, Clayton State College. Since then I have had the honor of working with many exonerees — all of them amazing people, but Charles is in a class by himself. Quintessentially unassuming, he reminds me of why I love living in Idaho.
After a very brief introduction, I encourage the audience to ask him questions. He answers them patiently for 30 minutes, then stays afterward to pose for selfies and talk with those who had been too shy to speak up in a crowd. As always, he is quiet but succinct, often surprising people with his conservative views about law and order. While other exonerees talk about the maddening torture of solitary confinement, Charles extols its virtues over the life-threatening chaos that “general population” would have been for a man branded a child killer.
Charles should never have been charged with the crime, and certainly not convicted. The “science” of his case rested on FBI comparative visual hair analysis: a type of forensics once championed by the FBI and responsible for thousands of convictions. Their experts trained countless local investigators all over the country to examine hairs side-by-side in a dual-image comparison microscope. Unfortunately, it was pseudo-science with no experimental basis at the core of its damning certainty. While hair comparison is something we all legitimately do (blond, curly, straight), the FBI analysts and their academy graduates ascribed nearly magical features to it. They testified to seeing “unique characteristics” and swore under oath to matches that were a “scientific certainty.” Juries across America were fooled into thinking it was a trustworthy science, and for many on trial this type of evidence, presented by the FBI, was unassailable.
Recently, however, the FBI has admitted its widespread error, and started working with Innocence Network organizations to partially undo some of the damage that its visual hair analysis has done. It was too late for Charles Fain. By the time the FBI realized its mistake, post-conviction DNA testing had shown that the hairs recovered from the young victim, which FBI experts had linked to Fain, could not have come from him. DNA saved him from execution and prison but could not restore 19 years on our death row.
The reason I am writing this piece is not to extol the work of the organization I head. We were not involved with Fain’s exoneration — though I have no shame using him to explain the problems of junk science and wrongful convictions. I am writing to ask my fellow Idahoans to consider doing something decent for this hardworking taxpayer. While many states have compensation laws for the wrongfully convicted, and federal prisoners can receive $100,000 for every year on death row, Idaho has no such law. Fain’s compensation for 19 years on Idaho’s death row was to get a jacket and dungarees from the prison laundry on his way out. The county insurers then spent perhaps hundreds of thousands of dollars successfully fighting his right to sue, and as an exoneree Charles was not even eligible for the training and benefits given to parolees. Death row provided him no job or technology training (he was to be killed after all), but to his credit he emerged from a cage to a series of temp jobs, and finally the position he has held for over a decade in an assembly plant. He got married, faithfully attends church and pays taxes like the rest of us, to keep the system working.
I admire Charles because he found the strength to pick up a life that was frozen for nearly two decades, while the man himself aged in a small concrete cell. Every time I see him, we talk about work — not just what we do, but the redemptive nature of productive labor. He has never asked me for anything — quite the opposite, he always assists me when I call. Charles is a quiet man, and now a bit hard of hearing: He asks students to speak up when they ask questions. So I am speaking up for him. I am not a lobbyist or politically active, but I can write. I have written to state officials, the county insurers and now you. Those of you who know how to get things done, can you find a way for Mr. Fain to be compensated for the mistakes that sent an innocent man to our death row? This was done in our name, after all. It was the state of Idaho against Charles Fain, the people against the man. Isn’t it time we made amends?
Greg Hampikian, Ph.D., is professor of biology and criminal justice at Boise State University. He is also director of the Idaho Innocence Project.