This business of seeing Idahoans freed after being wrongfully convicted of murder is starting to look like a pattern.
Before he was released, Donald Paradis spent 21 years in prison — 14 of them on death row — largely due to adulterated medical evidence.
Then came Charles Fain, who landed on death row and remained in prison for 18 years on the basis of faulty analysis of hair samples and the testimony of a jailhouse snitch.
Next was Chrisopher Tapp of Idaho Falls, who served 20 years for the 1996 murder of Angie Dodge, after police coerced a confession out of him. He’s free, but Tapp’s conviction is still on the books — even though DNA evidence recently led police to arrest and charge Brian C. Dripps of Caldwell with Dodge’s rape and murder.
In each case, it took an enormous effort on the part of groups such as the Idaho Innocence Project to prod a criminal justice system that prefers to defend the process rather than face up to new facts.
Overturning a conviction should not be easy. But given the advances in DNA technology and the track record, shouldn’t Idaho contemplate some reforms:
Review Cynthia Sewell’s profile of Idaho Innocence Project founder and director Greg Hampikian in the Idaho Statesman. Right off the top, you’ll realize the enormous injustice of it all.
Paradis was able to assert that his conviction was the product of prosecutorial misconduct and won a $900,000 settlement.
But Fain, whose conviction was merely a mistake made in good faith, walked away with nothing.
“He got a jacket and a pair of pants on his way out; that was it,” Hampikian said.
Idaho is among at least 15 states that offer no compensation to the wrongfully convicted. Prosecutors and police alone did not send Tapp to prison. Judges refused his pleas to suppress the confession. And once juries hear the word “confession,” they’re inclined to convict. In any event, all of this is done in the name of the people.
When society deprives the wrong person of his freedom, shouldn’t it offer something as recompense?
Tapp is free because cops compiled and then preserved the evidence used to implicate him. Without that trail of clues, the case for exoneration might not have been as compelling.
For instance, video recordings of his interrogation were vital in persuading no less than Dodge’s mother, Carol, that the police had the wrong man. When Steven A. Drizin of Northwestern University School of Law reviewed the record, he called it “the most contaminated and least corroborated” confession he’d seen in his 15 years at freeing the wrongfully convicted.
Meanwhile, DNA not only showed Tapp was absent from the scene of the crime, it ultimately led to Dripps.
But the law is silent on these points. Police are obligated to maintain DNA evidence only from rape cases, not murder. And nothing says they have to record interviews at all.
Why take the chance that the next Christopher Tapp won’t have taped interviews and DNA evidence to clear his name?
Law enforcement officers ought to follow these practices — not because of goodwill or professionalism, but as a matter of law.
Prosecutors operate with enormous power — especially in a state such as Idaho where they can charge someone with a crime that carries a mandatory minimum prison sentence.
It’s a tough job. But people make mistakes. When they do, they’re reluctant to admit it. At some level, there ought to be a check on their authority.
Conducting the kind of post-conviction review that led to Tapp’s release is not cheap. Securing an exoneration can cost between $300,000 and $750,000.
Yet the financial burden falls squarely on private organizations, such as the Innocence Project, that operate with on-again, off-again federal grants — some of which carry strings that can make it difficult to operate in a state such as Idaho — as well as donations and attorneys who sometimes resort to working pro bono.
You can only wonder how many cases of wrongful conviction go unanswered in Idaho.
Why not buy a little insurance? How about investing in a a small but permanent wrongful convictions unit within the University of Idaho law school or the attorney general’s office?
Maybe they’ll find another Christopher Tapp.
Maybe they won’t.
Either way, you might sleep better at night. — M.T.