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Paying for Justice 

With the loss of federal grant money, the Idaho Innocence Project faces a shortfall in cash, but no lack of work

click to enlarge The Idaho Innocence Project analyzed DNA for Amanda Knox's attorneys. - TIZIANA FABI/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
  • Tiziana Fabi/AFP/Getty Images
  • The Idaho Innocence Project analyzed DNA for Amanda Knox's attorneys.

It's 2 am on the West Coast when the news arrives. Italy's Supreme Court is ordering a retrial of Amanda Knox, the University of Washington student accused of killing her British roommate in Italy in 2007, convicted of the crime in 2009, then acquitted in 2011.

Global media explodes.

Halfway around the world, a professor at Boise State University sits up in bed to watch an online feed of Italian TV news and feels sick to his stomach.

"To create this elaborate myth that Raffaele and Amanda are involved without any substantial evidence is a stretch. I didn't think it would be revisited, but apparently it will be," the professor and DNA expert, Greg Hampikian, tells a public radio reporter solemnly. In a case that gripped the world, Knox and her then-boyfriend Raffaele Sollecito were convicted and later acquitted of killing British student Meredith Kercher. "To tell people ... that you are under suspicion for murder and that you could be returned to the prison where you spent four years in Italy is extremely frightening, and it is part of a continuing sentence that she and her family are serving ... to live this story over and over again."

It's a situation that, in a broad sense, Hampikian faces daily. Along with his work analyzing DNA evidence for Knox's defense attorneys, Hampikian contributes DNA analysis and testimony in cases of potential wrongful conviction from Idaho to Georgia to Maine. Now, his primary job as a professor at Boise State and director of the Idaho Innocence Project is getting more difficult. With the recent loss of a two-year, $220,000 federal grant, the already small Idaho Innocence Project will revert to skeletal staffing and capability, with Hampikian as its only full-time staffer.

"We can do the science, but we can't do the law on new cases," says Hampikian, who's been featured in national media, including a Dateline NBC special about convicted Idaho murderer Christopher Tapp. Hampikian and others, including the victim's mother, believe Tapp is innocent because his DNA does not match that found at the scene. Tapp, who's been in jail since 1998, says he was coerced into confessing.

Staffed by Hampikian, a full-time attorney and student interns, the project has reviewed cases of inmates who claim they've been wrongfully convicted and done DNA analysis in such cases. Like most Innocence Projects nationwide, it depends on grant money and private donors, and without the Department of Justice's Wrongful Conviction Review grant, it will not be able to take on any new cases. Cases of potential wrongful conviction can take decades of complicated legal maneuvering and appeals, requiring tedious legal work and long-term commitment.

The cash crunch facing the Idaho Innocence Project highlights not only the vulnerability of similar projects nationwide, but some shortcomings in the Idaho legal system, Hampikian says. One potential source of funding for the project — the Kirk Bloodsworth Post-Conviction DNA Testing Grant, named after the first death row prisoner to be exonerated on DNA evidence — isn't available to the Idaho project because the state doesn't have a DNA preservation law, setting universal rules for how long law enforcement agencies must keep biological evidence. (Groups can also qualify for the Bloodsworth grant if their state attorney general certifies in writing that the state takes reasonable measures to preserve evidence, but Hampikian says Idaho's attorney general has refused to do so.) The state also lacks a compensation bill to pay the exonerated for the time they spent in prison. (The University of Washington-based Innocence Project Northwest successfully lobbied the Washington State Legislature for a compensation law this year.)

"It's a damn shame," says Boise defense lawyer Dennis Benjamin of the funding loss. Benjamin worked with the Idaho Innocence Project to get DNA evidence retested in the case of Sarah Johnson, who was convicted in 2005 of killing her parents and who Benjamin and Hampikian believe is innocent.

"Unless there is some place for an inmate to write and say, 'Please look at my case' and someone to do an initial screening and look at it, we just won't know what's out there," Benjamin says. "That'll be the mystery. Who is out there that we don't know is innocent?" ♦

To learn more about the Idaho Innocence Project and the cases on which the group is working, visit their website or Facebook page.

A clarification about the ways programs can qualify for the Kirk Bloodsworth Post-Conviction DNA Testing Grant was added after this story's original publication.

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