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Greg Hampikian

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A shorter version of this interview appeared in this week's Boise Weekly.

Greg Hampikian is a biologist at Boise State who has a wind-up sperm on his desk and Peruvian mummy bones in his lab. Hampikian, a forensic DNA expert, is in high demand by cops, prosecutors and inmates alike for his skill at obtaining and analyzing DNA evidence. Hampikian directs the Idaho Innocence Project, part of the now-international network of groups looking to DNA evidence to assist wrongfully convicted prisoners. As a scientist, and the only Innocence Project director with a scientific background, Hampikian assists victims and suspects in getting to the bottom of their cases. BW talked to him in his crowded, narrow office about criminal justice, Basque DNA, and his inventions. And after the interview, Hampikian mentioned the first time he analyzed his own sperm. "I had never prepared the sample all the way from beginning to end," he said modestly.

The Supreme Court's recent Osborne decision leaves a prisoner's right to DNA testing up to the states. How does that affect Idaho?

There is a law in Idaho. In fact we are working to make sure that the intention of the lawmakers is actually what is in the law. As I see it, there is an issue with the two-year time bar. Imagine that you're falsely convicted of raping or killing some one. You probably have lost all your money at this point, your friends and most of your family members. In Idaho, you only have two years to find that DNA evidence, get it tested and prove your innocence. That's, we think, overly burdensome. And when we did the research of the 120 cases [of exonerations] that we could get all the records for, only a handful found their evidence in two years. I don't think that was an intention of the law. [Boise Mayor] Dave Bieter was the original sponsor of the bill. I don't think he recalls how this two-year limit was put in and we couldn't find it in the minutes. So we are working with people trying to get that corrected.

You work with law enforcement and you also work with defendants. What do you think the role of DNA is for both of those sides?

You know, there are issues. When I spoke in London about two weeks ago, I was asked about the British database which is very broad. If you get arrested in Britain, you are likely to end up in a DNA database and a number of people there who were concerned about rights wanted to ask me about it. Then someone said, "What do you think about the database?" It's a loaded question because I do wear a number of hats. I am worried about privacy issues, I think the public has a right to be concerned. By the same token, when I am working on Innocence Project cases, I wish everybody was in the database. We have a case here in Idaho where they have DNA from a rapist, the woman is killed and they can't get a match to the database but they have a man in prison who doesn't match that semen. So in order to work on his case, it would be really nice to know who inseminated this victim, and if everyone was in the database we would be able to see that. Now, I realize that there are all kinds of very significant, important issues and I think different groups, the courts are going to have to decide. The European court came down against what they are doing in Britain because there is no easy mechanism for getting yourself out of the database, and they're saying you know, if you are found innocent, you should be taken out of a criminal DNA database. Which sounds logical

Are detectives eager to embrace this stuff?

I think they all really like it. I think sometimes they aren't aware of how it can be used in a particular situation and that's an education issue and that's why we run an open lab for police departments. Anybody who wants to come in, we train 'em. I talked with Ada [County] recently about the idea of looking at property crimes.

So my bicycle was stolen here in Boise and it's a really nice bike and I reported it to the police and they found it. I don't know if they are going to prosecute the person they found it with or not, but I offered to swab it for DNA and they looked at me like that's not something that they do. And a lot of jurisdictions don't do DNA on property crime. Our state crime lab doesn't want to do a lot of property crime cases, they have rapes and murders to worry about. But the reality is that states that have adopted looking at property crime, I think will tell you, it's paid off. If they buy the tests in bulk, it's about $400 for a swab ...

What would you look for on a bike?

There's nothing I can do. I don't have a database. I'm really not that curious. In this case, somebody stuck a little piece of a penknife in this pocket that I have on the bike. I could have easily swabbed the pull tab and I would see myself there. I could subtract out those alleles and then I would see what other DNA markers are there. And if there was a known, we could say that that known person was either excluded as being a possible contributor or could be a contributor along with some percentage of the population ... Basically you're comparing the known, you have a suspect, to this sample, or if you get a really good profile, you can put it in the criminal database ... and then see if this person's had a previous crime, if they have other property that's tied to this same person. Have they done 50 bikes?

Do you ever have a conflict between wanting to help prosecute vs. trying to help somebody get off a crime?

The short answer is no, there's no difference. It's all the science and I get to look at the science. The longer answer is a little bit more nuanced and that is that as director of The Idaho Innocence Project, that job is wonderful. It's unpaid, but anyway, it's wonderful in that I have the same concerns there as a prosecutor does. And that is, a prosecutor who's prosecuting a case, no matter how far it gets, if they get exculpatory evidence and are convinced that this person's innocent, they need to stop that right away. And the same thing with the Innocence Project. I don't have to stay with a client ... If it appears that the evidence includes them, that becomes public information and I'm no longer working with them. So that part of my work, the Innocence Project work, is really a lot like a prosecutor and I find more in common with prosecutors than defense lawyers.

Have you had to tell an inmate, sorry, but your DNA was on there?

Yeah, recently. Fortunately, it's not usually me that has to tell them. In my last case, the family had hired a lawyer and we joined that case with them because there was DNA to test ... but the DNA included this guy and so it validated the whole process. About half the time, that happens. I don't know that you can use that statistic, that's just my personal experience.

How do you use dog DNA?

A lot of times, hair is transferred from one place and you pick it up at a crime scene, and sometimes that hair can be used to eliminate a scenario or include a scenario. So basically your dog is on you everywhere you go and that might be one of the reasons other dogs are interested in you. So those hairs will be transferred to a car, a room, etc. For example, Wayne Williams, [the Atlanta Child Murders case], was convicted of two, and there were hairs in that case that were found on a victim who was thrown into the river. Wayne has been petitioning, asking for testing. So we did some of the reference samples here for that case, sent the evidence sample to UC Davis—they have a great canine DNA lab—and Wayne's dog could not be eliminated as a contributor of some of those hairs. So it certainly didn't help his case, it certainly doesn't prove anything definitively, but it didn't change his situation.

Are you conscious of your DNA trail when you wake up?

I'm more aware than other people. I was just in Seattle two days ago on an Innocence Project case there. On Saturday, just going through some exhibits with a lawyer, I saw that the original tie-in to this suspect was the police had surreptitiously gotten a tissue that this guy had blown his nose in, 'cause I saw, like "DNA mucus sample" or something. So I'm very aware that people kind of leave DNA around. I don't think there's anything you can do about it. I am aware when I go to a crime scene, I'm not there until way after it's been initially processed, but even then, I like to think that I'm conscious of depositing DNA somewhere because it will just mess up results. I know how to eliminate myself once I see the results. Yeah, you leave a lot of DNA around, it turns out.

We've done some interesting studies trying to pull DNA off of items. I have a friend in a crime lab where everybody was asked to, all the married couples, to use a condom for a few weeks and bring the condom in for testing because they wanted to see if they could pull some of the female cells off of the outside of the condom. This was 12 or 14 years ago. I was visiting my friends in the crime lab and one of them opened the fridge and I was like, what is that? So you get some pretty odd experiments that have to be done. We don't know you can get DNA from things until you try ...

What's a DNA barcode?

That's an invention that I came up with, and the barcode name isn't our name ... The idea is, if I asked you to give me a DNA sample because I'm investigating a crime scene and you ask, well where's that DNA gonna go, and I say, well, it's going to go to the crime lab and you're like, well, where is the knife from the crime going. Well, that's going to the crime lab too. Well, how do I know you're not going to make a mistake or drop my stuff on a lab bench and it gets contaminated, because you know, we copy the DNA a billion times? It's a real concern and there have been cases, now proven, of contamination in a laboratory. Even though people don't like talking about that, it happens. And so what I've invented is a little way of marking your sample, that when you give the police a sample, you just stick this barcode in there and now if they spill it or if it gets transferred somehow, it will have this marker in it that will show up next to the DNA profile. So we're finishing up that work and we have a large grant to work on it from the Department of Defense actually, which was nice.

What are you looking for with your Basque DNA study?

You know, the best health studies are done as twins separated at birth. You separate twins and one of them eats ketchup and the other one never eats ketchup and grows up in a different family. Well, they have the same genetics, and so if you can find out that they did everything the same except eat ketchup, you might find what the effects of ketchup are. What we're trying to do with our Basque study, Mike Davis in the lab there, is trying to show that the Basque here are similar to the Basque back home. So the first leg of the Basque project is ... to show what the population here looks like in terms of their DNA compared to a few different areas in the Basque homeland. And if they are nearly identical, if the markers we're looking at are similar, then we can start looking at what are the different diseases they have. We hope that this is going to help the Basque population.

Is there a case that you're familiar with that just really bugs you?

Here in Idaho, I think there are plenty of reasons to worry about Chris Tapp's conviction. Sarah Pearce is another person we're working with ... I think there's reason to believe she's innocent and so we're working on that case. I have a horrible case in Indiana that is probably the reason that I wake up screaming occasionally. It's five black men, originally accused of raping a white woman. The woman was pregnant at the time and they cover her with overalls and they put her back in her car with this pair of overalls on her. She recalls that all of them wiped their genitals off after intercourse with her sweater or something, so they're there and it's glowing with semen, everybody agrees, and the state goes to trial against these guys, and the one that I'm working on, he is included by serology, blood typing evidence, but DNA about this time starts being used, too. And the DNA excludes this guy and all the other suspects. So they have semen on this woman and she has no reason to have semen smeared all over her sweater. She says these guys all cleaned themselves off on her sweater and the DNA excludes all these guys. They go to trial and the state puts up the serology evidence ... so I was in a hearing and I said to the judge, you know, there's two people in this courtroom that I'm pretty sure would be included in those semen stains. And I said your honor, it's you and me because we're both white and 100 percent of the Caucasian population would be included in those stains, all the blood types of Caucasians are there because it's five people mixed, so we shouldn't be surprised the [suspects] also are there. But the DNA excludes them and hopefully excludes us as well. The DNA's far better and why are these men still in prison? And they just went up with another round of appeals and they just lost ... these guys are hard workin' mill guys. I'm just shocked that the judges haven't said, "oh you're right, at least they need a new trial," because if the jury knew they were excluded by DNA and it was clearly presented and this new evidence, the hair evidence that also is consistent with that, that would be new evidence for a trial and the jury might come to a different conclusion. To be accused and be innocent is just a horrific nightmare.

Greg Hampikian will speak on Saturday, June 27, during the Freedom March for the Wrongfully Convicted, which gathers at 9 a.m. in Julia Davis Park, The march starts at 10 a.m.

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