Crime

These DNA experts want to free wrongfully convicted prisoners. Idaho law doesn’t make it easy.

Idaho Innocence Project receives $630,000 grant to test DNA

The grant from the U.S. Department of Justice will be used to test DNA in possible wrongful conviction cases. But since the money cannot be used in Idaho, it will be used to help other states.
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The grant from the U.S. Department of Justice will be used to test DNA in possible wrongful conviction cases. But since the money cannot be used in Idaho, it will be used to help other states.

Correction: This article has been updated to accurately reflect Brian Dripps’ middle initial. His middle name is Leigh.

Every week a small group, including attorneys, retired police investigators and DNA experts, meets in Boise.

Their mission? Free wrongfully convicted prisoners in Idaho.

Since its founding at Boise State University in 2005, the Idaho Innocence Project has helped free two people, Sarah Pearce and Chris Tapp. Last month, Idaho Falls police said they solved a 23-year-old cold case with the help of Idaho Innocence Project scientists, who helped extract and identify the DNA that led to Brian L. Dripps being charged in the rape and murder of Angie Dodge — a crime investigators initially pinned on Tapp.

Led by Boise State biology and criminal justice professor Greg Hampikian, the group is working on five Idaho cases, but Hampikian would not provide details out of fear he could jeopardize the investigations.

“We are really not ready to comment on any current Idaho cases that have not been resolved,” he said. “I can tell you that three of five Idaho cases we are working on are women.”

In addition to his Idaho Innocence Project work, Hampikian independently works on national and international cold cases and wrongful conviction cases, including the well-known Amanda Knox case in Italy.

Hampikian said he has helped free more than 20 wrongfully convicted prisoners. In seven of those cases, the DNA work was done in Hampikian’s Boise State lab.

“We work on cases from all over the world out of this lab,” he said.

But the work is not easy — Idaho Innocence Project worked for more than 10 years on the Tapp case — and it is not cheap.

“The cost of getting someone who is innocent out of prison can cost between $300,000 and $750,000,” Hampikian said. “It is very hard work.”

And right now the group doing this hard work is doing it for free.

“Our work at the Idaho Innocence Project is currently all pro bono,” Hampikian said. “That makes it hard for us to provide all the help we would like to.”

A way to help the innocent

Founded in 1992 in New York, The Innocence Project is a national organization dedicated to exonerating wrongfully convicted people through DNA testing and reforming the criminal justice system to prevent future injustice.

Since then, a nationwide network of innocence projects has developed. The Innocence Network comprises about 50 independent state and regional organizations, including Idaho Innocence Project.

To date, 365 people in 37 states have been exonerated by DNA testing, including 20 who served time on death row, according to The Innocence Project, which worked on about half of those cases.

In addition to DNA testing, other wrongful conviction cases involve flawed science, shoddy police work or faulty eyewitnesses or confessions.

In the two successful Idaho Innocent Project cases, Sarah Pearce and Chris Tapp, neither has been officially exonerated, but both were released early from prison.

Pearce was released from prison in 2014 after serving nearly 12 years on a life sentence.

She was one of five people convicted in a June 2000 attack on Linda LeBrane in Canyon County. Pearce insisted from the beginning that she is innocent, a case of mistaken identity. The Idaho Innocence Project took up her cause. A post-conviction relief case filed in 2008 raised numerous questions about the identification of Pearce as the female attacker. Under a deal reached with prosecutors and Idaho Innocence Project, her sentence was amended to time served and she was released with five years probation.

Tapp was released from prison in March 2017 after serving 20 years on an up-to-life sentence.

An Idaho Falls jury in May 1998 convicted Tapp of aiding and abetting in Angie Dodge’s rape and killing, even though his DNA did not match the DNA found at the crime scene. He was sentenced to life with a minimum of 20 years for the charge of aiding the murder and a minimum of 10 years for aiding the rape. He would be eligible for parole in 2027. Tapp maintained he was innocent and that his confession was coerced.

In October 2007, Tapp, who had been in prison for 10 years, sent a letter to the Idaho Innocence Project, which agreed to take on the case. Idaho Innocence Project, Tapp’s attorney John Thomas, Dodge’s mother and others persevered. Ten years later, Tapp was released early from prison. Last month, Idaho Falls police announced they had finally arrested the suspect to whom the crime scene DNA matched, Brian L. Dripps of Caldwell. The Bonneville County prosecuting attorney and Idaho Falls police have not announced what will happen to Tapp’s guilty conviction, which is still on his record.

Some of the Innocence Project cases in other states Hampikian recently worked on include:

Georgia: In January, a judge ordered a new trial for death row inmate Johnny Lee Gates, who has spent 41 years in prison for murder. The judge ruled new DNA tests may exonerate Gates.

Montana: Fred Lawrence and Paul Jenkins were freed in April 2018 after serving 23 years on life sentences for robbery, kidnapping and homicide. DNA on items from the crime scene belongs to another man, who is already in prison on two unrelated murders.

Indiana: Darryl Pinkins and Roosevelt Glenn were released from prison in 2016 after serving nearly 25 years on a 1989 rape conviction after new DNA technology cleared them.

Idaho’s exoneration, post-conviction challenges

Idaho has its challenges when it comes to post-conviction relief and exoneration. The Gem State is one of several lacking a law requiring biological evidence in a murder investigation be stored.

“We have no evidence preservation law for murder,” Hampikian said, “but we do for rape.”

While retaining evidence in a murder case may be standard practice with Idaho law enforcement agencies, it is not codified in state law, which can lead to inconsistent practices across the state.

Idaho also does not have a law requiring police interrogations be recorded. About half of the states require interrogations be recorded, along with federal law enforcement agencies. Last month, the Oklahoma and Nevada legislatures passed laws requiring recording of interrogations.

Idaho is one of 15 states that does not offer compensation to anyone imprisoned on a wrongful conviction.

For example, DNA testing cleared Charles Fain, who was released after spending 18 years on Idaho’s death row for the murder and sexual assault of a 9-year-old Nampa girl in 1982.

“He got a jacket and a pair of pants on his way out, that was it,” Hampikian said. As an exoneree, Fain was not eligible for the training and benefits given to parolees.

This month, the Nevada Legislature passed a bill that provides compensation of up to $100,000 per year for those who spent 20 or more years imprisoned for crimes they did not commit.

A few simple changes to state law could help prevent, or rectify, wrongful convictions, Hampikian said, but if you think overturning a murder conviction is hard, try getting a new law passed.

“It just takes a tremendous amount of work to get the Legislature to change something,” he said.

No federal money due to bureaucracy

In 2016, Idaho Innocence Project received a $630,000 Department of Justice grant to conduct post-conviction DNA testing on Idaho cases.

But Hampikian soon discovered it could not spend any of the money on Idaho cases. Why? Blame a standardized federal form.

For the grant money to be used for DNA testing in any state, the state’s chief legal officer must sign a one-page form certifying that the state provides post-conviction DNA testing in murder and forcible rape cases and that it preserves biological evidence in those cases.

Since Idaho law only requires evidence preservation in forcible rape and not murder cases, Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden said he could not sign the federally required form certifying that the state’s DNA testing and collection practices comply with federal requirements.

Additionally, Wasden explained that he does not have jurisdiction over the state crime lab, Idaho State Police, county sheriff’s offices or city police departments, so he cannot compel these law enforcement agencies to take reasonable measures to collect and preserve biological evidence in murder and forcible rape cases. Only state law can do that.

Basically, for Idaho Innocence Project to get the grant, Wasden said he would have to commit perjury by signing the federal form.

Not wanting to lose the grant, Hampikian partnered with Innocence Project organizations in Montana, Georgia and Illinois — states whose laws comply with the grant’s requirements and whose attorneys general signed the form. Hampikian uses the grant money to do DNA testing and lab work for those three states, but the money cannot be used for Idaho cases.

To ensure there is no commingling of Idaho work with work for other states, Hampikian created the Idaho Forensic Justice Project, which does the lab work under the grant. Idaho Innocence Project volunteers do not work on the out-of-state cases.

Until state law or the federal form is changed, Hampikian said Idaho cannot receive that federal grant money, which is why the Idaho Innocence Project has to get by on donations and volunteers. In addition to volunteer attorneys, Idaho Innocence Project also needs investigators, paralegals and grant writers. Updates, donation and volunteer information can be found online at innocenceproject.boisestate.edu.

“We are not paying staff right now. Any funds are used for travel and testing,” he said. “But we have a dedicated team of people,” Hampikian said.

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Idaho Statesman investigative reporter Cynthia Sewell was named Idaho Press Club reporter of the year in 2017 and 2008. A University of Oregon graduate, she joined the Statesman in 2005. Her family has lived in Idaho since the mid-1800s.
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