Arts & Culture

Boise geneticist helps Knox in Italian conviction appeal. DNA shows she isn’t guilty

DNA expert Greg Hampikian a professor of biology and criminal justice at Boise State University, inspects a plate of cells at his lab at BSU Thursday May 26, 2011. Hampikian and his staff have been analyzing DNA evidence in the Amanda Knox case as part of the Idaho Innocence Project. His research points away from Knox, who was convicted in Italy for the murder of a British student in which she was sharing a flat in 2007
DNA expert Greg Hampikian a professor of biology and criminal justice at Boise State University, inspects a plate of cells at his lab at BSU Thursday May 26, 2011. Hampikian and his staff have been analyzing DNA evidence in the Amanda Knox case as part of the Idaho Innocence Project. His research points away from Knox, who was convicted in Italy for the murder of a British student in which she was sharing a flat in 2007 Idaho Statesman file photo

Note: This story was originally published on May 27, 2011.

The world was captivated by the Italian trial that convicted Seattle college student Amanda Knox in the sensational 2007 murder of British student Meredith Kercher.

Knox’s appeal is now under way, and critical evidence used to convict her actually shows she’s innocent, says Boise State professor Greg Hampikian, a forensic DNA expert who volunteered to help the Knox defense.

At the center of Knox’s appeal is DNA evidence collected from the crime scene.

Hampikian says the prosecutors drew the wrong conclusions from that evidence, twisting it to fit their preconceived theory of Knox’s guilt.

“They stuck with their gut feeling,” he said. “Amanda left (no DNA) that night, and I say that’s because she wasn’t there.”

Hampikian is the founder of the Idaho Innocence Project, which works to exonerate people wrongly convicted of crimes.

Hampikian first became interested in the Knox case while researching European DNA cases. He contacted the Knox defense team, who agreed to share the DNA tests, crime scene photos and other evidence from the case; he agreed to share his findings with the defense. He’s not being paid for his work. He has seen Knox in an Italian courtroom but has not met her.

His work was featured in a CNN show on Knox that aired earlier this month and in upcoming shows of ABC’s “20/20” and CBS’s “48 Hours.”

Italian investigators diligently collected evidence from the victim and the room where the bloody murder occurred - more than 100 samples of DNA, including a rape kit, clothes and even feces left in an unflushed toilet.

“They were thorough,” said Hampikian. But conclusions drawn about Knox from that DNA evidence are wrong, he said.

“I looked at the data, and it was just horrible,” he said.

He cites “a lot of procedural problems,” with the investigation, including a 50-hour-long police interview with Knox in which police asked Knox to “hypothetically imagine” what happened, then used it “like a confession.”

“Their gut feeling pans out and they get this confession,” Hampikian said. “Case closed. Then they get the DNA.”

But Hampikian says that none of Knox’s DNA was found in the room where Kercher was murdered. The DNA that investigators did find matched African drifter Rudy Guede, who had not previously been a suspect.

“There’s a great amount of DNA ... and it is all Rudy Guede’s,” Hampikian said. A bloody handprint on a wall and the feces were Guede’s, he said.

Guede was tried in 2008 for Kercher’s murder and sentenced to 30 years in prison; that was reduced to 16 years on appeal. Knox and her Italian boyfriend, Raffaele Sollecito, were convicted in 2009, getting 26 years and 25 years, respectively.

The one place where DNA from both the victim and Knox was found together was on a knife in the kitchen drawer of Knox’s boyfriend’s apartment. Police seized it during a search because it looked like it had been cleaned.

The knife did not test positive for blood. It did contain a small amount of the victim’s DNA on the blade and Knox’s DNA on the handle.

Hampikian doesn’t dispute that Knox’s DNA is on the knife handle. She had used utensils to cook in her boyfriend’s apartment, he said.

Italy Knox.JPG
DNA evidence against Amanda Knox, above, in Italian court in 2011, was so small, a Boise forensics expert says, it can’t be reliably tested— which can be “the difference between the proper and the incorrect conclusion.” Stefano Medici AP

But the amount of the victim’s DNA on the blade is so minuscule that it wouldn’t be accepted in a U.S. lab or court, he said. Hampikian thinks the victim’s DNA may have been transferred to the knife during evidence collection or processing - so he and his crew put the transfer theory to test.

Using four “suspects” from a BSU dean’s office, Hampikian research associate Mike Davis and volunteer researcher Laura Wendel conducted an experiment. Davis donned a lab coat and gloves and collected a used soda can from an employee. Without changing gloves, he went to another room to collect a brand-new knife. Then he changed gloves and lab coat and repeated the process with each of the other employees. In one case, the knife tested positive for the employee’s DNA, even though she had never seen the knife or been in the same room as the knife.

“That is what I think happened in the case of (Knox’s) knife,” Hampikian said. “Transfer does occur.”

Cynthia Sewell: 377-6428

About the Knox case

Amanda Knox and her co-defendant, former boyfriend Raffaele Sollecito, were arrested Nov. 6, 2007, four days after Meredith Kercher’s body, her throat slit, was found in the apartment she and Knox shared as exchange students in Perugia, Italy.

Knox was convicted in 2009 of sexually assaulting and murdering Kercher and sentenced to 26 years in prison. Sollecito was convicted of the same charges and sentenced to 25 years in prison. A drifter from the Ivory Coast, Rudy Guede, was convicted in 2008.

At trial, Knox and Sollecito said they were at Sollecito’s house the night of the murder. Prosecutors floated several motivations for the murder, including a sex game gone awry, a satanic ritual or drugs. Most recently, the prosecutor said Knox ordered the killing from outside the room, which is why her DNA was not found.

Knox and Sollecito have consistently denied killing Kercher. Their appeal is under way in Perugia; it could hinge on an independent review of DNA evidence used to convict them.

On May 21, the court gave independent DNA experts until June 30 to finish their review.

On Thursday, some Italian lawmakers said they believe Knox has been treated unfairly and asked for a probe into the way the prosecution has handled the case. The prosecutor Giuliano Mignini was accused in the Douglas Preston book “The Monster of Florence” of bungling a serial killer investigation.

About the Idaho Innocence Project

The Idaho Innocence Project at Boise State, founded in 2005 by Greg Hampikian, is one of more than 60 state and regional affiliates of the national Innocence Project.

The nonprofit Idaho Innocence Project has helped exonerate eight wrongly convicted people around the nation; in four of those cases, new DNA evidence identified the actual perpetrators. In some cases, the project’s DNA research has validated a conviction. The project is assisting with two Idaho cases:

  • Chris Tapp is serving 30 years to life for the rape-murder of Angie Dodge in Idaho Falls in 1996. The DNA profile from pubic hair and sperm samples collected at the crime scene do not match Tapp’s, said Hampikian.
  • Sarah Pearce is serving a sentence of 15 years to life; she was one of four people convicted in the attack on Linda LeBrane, who was abducted, beaten, stabbed and left for dead near her burned car near Sand Hollow in June 2000. Hampikian wants to use DNA to determine whether Pearce may be innocent.
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