Greg Hampikian was interested in DNA before he was interested in exonerations. In 1999, he was teaching biology in Georgia when Calvin Johnson, who had been wrongfully convicted of a rape not far from Hampikian’s home, was released from prison after 17 years. Fascinated by the case, Hampikian contacted Johnson and they decided to write Johnson’s biography together. While working on the book, Hampikian started getting requests to help on criminal cases. “Suddenly I realized that I finally had what I wanted. I had something really important—a gift that I could give to somebody that very few people could give them, that might lead to their freedom.”
Along with the Idaho Innocence Project, Hampikian offered his expertise to the Amanda Knox defense. Knox—an American student studying in Italy who was convicted of the murder of her roommate, Meredith Kercher—was sentenced to 26 years in prison by an Italian court in 2009. Her conviction was overturned and she was released in October 2011, after a higher court ruled that evidence was insufficient to link her to the crime. This was, in part, due to Greg Hampikian’s work. After police found Meredith Kercher’s DNA on a knife taken from Amanda Knox’s boyfriend and co-defendant’s home, “The question became,” Hampikian says, “how did that DNA get there? So we did experiments in my lab to show that a small amount of DNA is very easily transferred.” This is one of the problems, he says, with evolving technologies. DNA tests are now so sensitive that police and scientists can now identify DNA that has been transferred by superficial contact like shaking hands. After studying the results of DNA tests in the Knox case, Hampikian concluded that the minute biological samples found at the crime science had been contaminated. “You really have to re-train police officers in how to collect evidence properly for this level of sensitivity,” he says.
After years of working with exonerees, Hampikian knows the importance of science and technology in criminal trials, but, he says, problems arise when the human element is forgotten. “We as scientists have enjoyed a reputation we don’t deserve,” he says. “We are treated as if we don’t have all the normal human biases that people have. We hide behind the shield of science the way the church did in the Middle Ages. The truth is that scientists are just as subject to normal human biases as anything else—to the influence of colleagues to the influence of context.” This, he says, is what happened in the Knox case. For police, he says, “the order was gut feeling, arrest, and then science.”
The exoneration of Amanda Knox was rare (and the case is not yet over—she is now home, but Italy’s highest court overturned her acquittal in March 2013 and ordered a new trial). “Most times,” Hampikian says, “there is nothing I can do.... The exonerations are the tip of the iceberg. There are so many cases we can’t do anything about, to me the exonerations are almost symbolic,” he says. “What they should show us is what’s wrong with the system.”