DNA testing project offers fresh hope to the wrongfully convicted


As the official Dublin launch of the Innocence Project takes place, law students are already reviewing possible miscarriages of justice

JUST FOUR HOURS before US prisoner Carlton Gary was due to be executed by lethal injection in December 2009, the Supreme Court of Georgia ordered a stay of execution so that the 59-year-old man’s request for DNA testing could be considered.

The so-called Columbus Stocking Strangler, Gary was sentenced to die in 1986 after he was convicted of raping and killing three elderly women in the late 1970s, a series of murders that paralysed the Georgian city.

The director of the Idaho Innocence Project, Dr Greg Hampikian, who helped to secure Gary’s stay of execution, points out that the state has spent some $4 million over the past 20 years to prosecute this case – and yet three slides of sperm recovered from the victims have never been DNA-tested until now. The results are expected back in the next few weeks.

“No DNA testing has ever been done in this case in 20 years – it was never requested by the defence or the prosecution,” Hampikian says. “In my view, if you are going to execute somebody who claims he is innocent, he is at least entitled to the right to DNA testing.”

A forensic genetics expert, Dr Hampikian’s expertise is called on by the Innocence Project all over the US and further afield. He is currently working with the family of Amanda Knox, the American student jailed in Italy last year for the murder of British student Meredith Kercher.

The Innocence Project is a non-profit legal clinic affiliated with the Benjamin N Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University in New York and founded by Barry C Scheck and Peter J Neufeld in 1992. It is dedicated to exonerating wrongfully convicted people through DNA testing and reforming the criminal justice system to prevent injustice. Many of the cases dealt with by the Innocence Project in the US involve prisoners on death row or those serving life for very serious offences, including murder and sexual assault. The concept has spread to Canada, Australia, the UK and now Ireland.

Dr Hampikian will be in Dublin next week to launch the Innocence Project officially at the Griffith College law school, where final-year students are reviewing claims of wrongful conviction and miscarriage of justice in Ireland for the first time.

A professor of genetics at the University of Boise, Idaho, Dr Hampikian’s role with the Innocence Project is voluntary, but one he takes seriously. He has been involved in four exonerations over the past decade, though, ironically, his DNA testing has confirmed guilt in two further cases.

“I can’t tell who is telling the truth or who is lying, but the DNA can tell,” he says. “Sometimes the Innocence Project is a bit of a misnomer. In two of the four exonerations, I developed evidence that led to the arrest of somebody new for the crime, so for some people we are the Guilty Project – and that’s an important part of what we do.”

Dr Hampikian is lobbying the Georgian state legislature to change the one-year time limit for DNA testing, pointing out that it costs about $1,000 (€735) to do a DNA test, but that if somebody gets exonerated it saves the state the $20,000 (€14,700) a year it costs to keep them in prison.

“The fact that the majority of people who go through the system are guilty means the system is used to dealing with guilty people, but it has a hard time with innocent people who get to trial and beyond because they have no remorse and won’t make a deal,” he says. “They end up getting the book thrown at them at sentencing and parole hearings – they are in the worst possible situation.”

Dublin’s Griffith College Innocence Project has been up and running since October 2009. Nine students were chosen as case workers after a strict selection process and two supervising lawyers have been appointed to oversee the teams.

David Langwallner, dean of law at Griffith College, explains that 13 files from persons claiming wrongful conviction in the Irish courts have been evaluated by the case workers assigned to them. The files being worked on by the students involve a range of offences, including “the most serious crimes”, according to Langwallner. Some clients are in prison, while others have already served sentences.

“At this stage, we are sending off to the clients either further or better instruction to action or asking for copies of books of evidence and court documents,” Langwallner says. “We have a number of items ready to be DNA-tested and we would greatly welcome the use of a testing facility, either private or Government-owned.”

While Langwallner has received great support from his Bar colleagues, he is disappointed at the “murmurings” from some Irish solicitors who are not exactly welcoming the Innocence Project with open arms. He is also hopeful that the Bar Council will provide its support.

“There are some concerns about confidentiality among solicitors, but we guarantee absolute confidentiality and even the case workers’ names are kept anonymous,” he says. “There have also been suggestions that the project is just for the benefit of students and we are holding out hope to people. We are very careful to tell clients that our students will do their level best for them but that we are not promising anything.”

According to Langwallner, the students are so enthusiastic about their task that they can be found locked into the college’s Innocence Project room morning, noon and night. In fact, the college is considering validating the project as part of its course offering from next term so that students can get credits towards their degrees or Masters programmes (those working on the project at the moment will get a diploma on completion).