Crow's Feet Podcast

Meet the 62-year old Inventor/Playwright/DNA expert fighting for justice

January 24, 2024 Crow's Feet
Crow's Feet Podcast
Meet the 62-year old Inventor/Playwright/DNA expert fighting for justice
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Show Notes Transcript

Join host Jan M. Flynn in conversation with Dr. Greg Hampikian, founder of the Idaho Innocence Project and one of the leading forensic DNA experts in the U.S. A present-day Renaissance man, Dr. Hampikian is also a professor at Boise State University, an inventor, a NY Times contributing columnist, a playwright— and a fan of Crow’s Feet: Life As We Age! Listen as Dr. Hampikian lets his lively mind loose on wide-ranging topics — most notably, how his work informs his own aging, and what he finds so exciting about life in his 60s.

Bio & links:

 Greg Hampikian, PhD is an American biologist and the founder and director of the Idaho Innocence Project. He is considered one of the foremost forensic DNA experts in the United States.

 Dr. Hampikian lectures on DNA science generally as well as DNA in forensic evidence specifically nationwide. He is perhaps best knownfor his work on several exonerations both nationally and internationally, including his work on the Amanda Knox case.

 He is currently a professor in the Departments of Biological Sciences and Criminal Justice at Boise State University.

 He’s also a New York Times contributing columnist whose two most popular contributions to date have been "Men, Who Needs Them" and "When May I Shoot a Student?".

 Dr. Hampikian has been  inducted as a Charter Fellow of the National Academy of Inventors. His inventions range from a magnetic shape memory alloy micro-pump to a forensic DNA labeling kit that prevents contamination of samples given to the police

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Greg Hampikian


Time was going much faster I think, it’s, I think it's linear. I think when I'm with my two-year-old grandniece, time is going 30 times faster. I try to tell, like, my students and my partner who's younger than me that you know, I am not slow. Time is moving much faster at your rate of living. It looks like I’m slow, but actually, time is going so fast. I, you know, I find that exciting, but it's definitely different. I mean, a day is not what a day used to be.


Voice Over


This is Crow's Feet. A place where we ponder the question, are these our golden years? Or does aging just suck? Well, yes, getting older is not for the faint-hearted. But aging also brings wisdom and humor, a finely tuned perspective on life. In our podcast, you'll meet writers and others rethinking our later years, people who inspire us to reimagine our future.


Jan M. Flynn


Welcome to Crow's Feet: Life as we age. I'm Jan M. Flynn, your host, and I'm here in the studio at Boise State University with our guest for this episode, who is one of the most interesting people with one of the liveliest minds that I've ever had the pleasure to know. Dr. Greg Hampikian is a professor of Biological Sciences and Criminal Justice at Boise State University and is considered one of the foremost forensic DNA experts in the US. He's probably best known for his work on the Amanda Knox case, who was an American citizen who, at age 20, was wrongly convicted of murder in Italy and, thanks largely to Dr. Hampikian, was exonerated. And, in addition to founding and directing the Idaho Innocence Project, Dr. Hampikian has also helped establish the Georgia Innocence Project, the Irish Innocence Project, and Innocence Project France. So that's a long intro, but that's why I want to let you know what it is, what a renaissance man we are speaking to here. And we're going to find out how he feels about all that and how his knowledge of biology and DNA may affect his approach to aging and his own aging. So welcome, Dr. Hampikian, and I'm gonna call you Greg.


Greg Hampikian


Thanks for the great introduction. Can I qualify your introduction?


Jan M. Flynn


Please do.


Greg Hampikian


The thing is, you get old. I'm gonna be 62. And the people around you do a lot of great stuff. I'm the thread through all of those things you said, but you know, they were co-inventors on all of my patents, I think, except one. They're certainly co-authors. And when I walk into the lab, I sit behind a computer. And people come in and ask me questions; I try to find the money that we get, a little bit of time to think about ideas, and they do the work. And so you know, my name goes on an awful lot of stuff. I'm very proud of it. But the reality of the work that I do, everything is a giant team effort. And when I hear my name associated with it, that I'm like, you know, I'm one kid on the playground.


Jan M. Flynn


And I appreciate the modesty. And yeah, but most people, you know, out there playing on the playground doesn't necessarily result in inventions and all those other cool things you've done in Innocence Projects and getting people out of prison. But this is a show about aging and living life fully as we age, so...


Greg Hampikian


 I love the topic. I listened to the show, and I think you do a great job of it. It really is the coolest topic because as you get older, it's its own thing, right?...getting old. The 50s were a great decade; as my friend told me, they would be my best years. And I think he may be right; a very exciting time. But now heading into, like, the finish well period. And that's it's about finishing. It's valid for me. And so I was really interested that you want to talk about something about that topic. I think about it all the time, about the end, you know, the necessity of living every moment to the fullest. 


Jan M. Flynn


So you're a biologist, you know, an expert in molecular biology. Does that inform how you think about aging? And do you ever worry that you're running out of time to do all the things you want to do?


Greg Hampikian


I worried, you know, as a young person. I worried a lot; I was, you know, I was often the youngest because my birthday is in December, and my mom stuck me into kindergarten early. So, I was the youngest for so long. And that's such a terrible thing to carry around because you get used to being the youngest at something you think is an accomplishment. It's not an accomplishment. It's just a coincidence.


Jan M. Flynn


Well, do you worry that you're running out of time?


Greg Hampikian


Oh, not at all. Time, you know, time was going much faster. I think it's, I think it's linear. I think when I'm with my two-year-old grandniece, time is going 30 times faster. You know, and so an hour to her is my 30 hours. If I don't see her for a day, I haven't seen her for a month, and that really shows in their eyes there and, and the amount of growth that they've done, you know, in a short period of time. So I try to tell, like my students and my partner who's, who's younger than me, that, you know, I am not slow. Time is moving much faster at your rate of living; it looks” slow,” but actually, time is going so fast. I, you know, I find that exciting, but it's definitely different. I mean, a day is not what a day used to be. 


Jan M. Flynn


That is such a remarkable way to look at that. And we're not slow; we're moving at a higher rate. So tell us about your work with the Innocence Project. I know our listeners are going to be really interested in that as well.


Greg Hampikian


Well, I'm going to a funeral on Monday for somebody who I love very deeply. And who became a friend of mine after he got out of prison. We worked on his case, and so on, with a lot of other people; Christopher Tab. And I got to know him when he got out. And we spent six and a half years traveling together, hanging out, so I got to spend time with him, which was good because he died unexpectedly. Oh gosh, it's just been a week or so.


Jan M. Flynn


 I'm so sorry.


Greg Hampikian


Yeah, it’s hard. This is a hard one. I did a whole lot of crying. [Wow] Yeah, “I'll Be Missing You Then” hip hop song I was just listening to today, of course, cried. But that's all to say that, you know, this is another opportunity to get to know a life really well. And to have some part in it. But mostly, it's just another way of looking at truth and love and the expression of commitment. And that's what those cases are. And it's hard. There's a guy I had to walk back into prison because a night circuit reversed his freedom.


Jan M. Flynn


So he'd been released from prison?


Greg Hampikian


Yeah, And I didn't get him out. He was So we had a student on campus, this woman, oh my god, Annabella. She was just a pain. She'd come into the office, She'd cry. She was, she was like my age now 60 and12 years ago or so. And she would tell me about her son in prison who was innocent. She’d cry, and she was here to get a criminal justice degree to get him out. So I started going to his hearings, and then his lawyer brilliantly got him out of prison. And I think, honestly, I think he would have stayed out. Except for the threat of money from lawsuits and such. I have this terrible feeling that money is really corrupting the innocence movement. And it's both positive, you know, now that people know there's a price for locking up the wrong person, maybe that'll lead to reforms. But the other side of that is, we're starting to talk about prosecutors not being as open with us about testing DNA, or it's frightening to me because no one's talking about it. But it's an obvious problem, that the money is, is, changing things.


Jan M. Flynn


It's an unstated pressure on them. [Yeah]  What I'm hearing is that cities or states or counties, or whatever the end of the jurisdiction is, are afraid they're going to be on the hook for a compensation lawsuit.


Greg Hampikian


You know, I'd go and talk with a prosecutor and say, Hey, I'd like to taste test this piece of evidence. You know, if they thought that that person was really guilty, and the case was really good, and they didn't want to disturb it, sometimes I get friction, but most times, especially if it's a new prosecutor, they'd be like, Sure, go ahead and test it, see what happens. In the first case, I didn't. Idaho confirmed guilt, and it was over; it took about a couple of weeks. Now, there's a lot more pushback; we have to go to court. And people are mindful of that. The lawsuits. The other thing is it's become an entertainment industry. You know, we're podcasters and movie makers that are conventions now that want to talk to the exonerees. And that's good. I wrote a book with a guy who got out of prison, but it's become, you know, a billion-dollar-plus business.


Jan M. Flynn


My goodness, I had no idea. 


Greg Hampikian


Yeah, I realize there's some changes, and the whole system needs to start talking about how money is affecting it. That's just a very inside thing. But, that one of the things about getting old that ties back to your show is that where I'm excited is in discovering errors in the system that I have upheld. And it is tremendously exciting. 

So this week, I just heard yesterday that I testified in a trial. A Wyoming guy was found innocent. I had been hired through the defense because the state's evidence was terrible. They were calling it something it wasn’t, and so I testified and explained. I think we got a righteous verdict. But I tried to think what is wrong with the system? Why did I have to go and explain this? Well, one of the things was, was an allegation of a sexual assault. And they took samples from the complainant, the woman who said that someone had touched her inappropriately, including through digital penetration, and so they got samples and the lab tested the samples, and they got the complainant’s DNA. Her DNA is on her body. That, that's what we expect. So, the tests all work just fine. They got no male DNA. They tried everything. They pooled samples together, which, you know, you do as a last resort. They still got no male, but what did they report? They reported insufficient male DNA for further processing. And so the lawyer called me, thank goodness, he called me on the eve of trial and said,” What does this mean insufficient? That means there was some there, right”? And I said it does sound like that.

 So we went back, and I went back to the actual readings from instruments. The readings were zero, down to exactly what they see in their negative controls. And, so what does this mean? Why am I excited? Because I'm old. And I have to find a reason to be significant still, to myself. And it's because I've let this happen. I realized that we have three findings and forensic DNA. We have you excluded from a sample; that's usually good. If you're innocent, we cannot exclude you; that means you're a match to the evidence, and then inconclusive, it is that “excluded” one that is important. In this context, how do we exclude some? Well, do we exclude you? If we look at a sample and we get the expected DNA? And we get no DNA on that. What do we say? If we still have the victim, can we exclude you? 

Well, the way that the system has evolved, we won't exclude you. We’ll say there was nothing to compare it to. But that's not what you want. 

It's like a pregnancy test. You don't want to know, just you're pregnant, and then insufficient evidence to call you pregnant. You want to know you're not pregnant, right? Or you have COVID or you don't have COVID, right? The criminal justice laboratories of forensic science, my field growing up out of police labs, and there is a tremendous amount of intrinsic bias that is, you know, ignoble, in that what was the job of the police to find the right person to exclude is kind of an afterthought. [Right] You know, okay, cross this one off the list. But let's find the right guy,


Jan M. Flynn


They wouldn't, they want to find the guy. They don't necessarily want to exclude all the not guys.


Greg Hampikian


No. And they do that, in a sense. I mean, DNA does tell them to let go of people. That was one of the great changes in the field when we started using DNA is that innocent people were let go early in the process. But when you go to court, that term, excluded, only is used when they had something to compare it to, not when the test went well, and they got no result. So that's my new thing. This is just this week. I realized I had been fooled. And when I first learned it, now I remember, yeah, excluded bothered me because you can only do it if you had someone you were comparing it to. And if what you did was test something and you found the expected DNA but no foreign DNA. You wouldn't exclude the person. And so the innocent person is left without recourse to science.


Jan M. Flynn


They’re left in limbo essentially. 


Greg Hampikian


Yeah, it's terrible.



Jan M. Flynn


 But it sounds like again, I keep bringing it back to the show theme. It sounds like without that breadth and depth of experience, you might not be arriving at this revelation that this, the system you've been working in for a long time, has an inherent inadvertent flaw.


Greg Hampikian


And I guess that's what I would, I would beg of your listeners is, you know, everybody who's listening to this show is probably older.


Jan M. Flynn


100% sure they're all aging, as we all are.  


Greg Hampikian


Yes. The thing is, it's not that my long experience lets me find problems; it is that I returned to the initial questions from during my training. The things that bothered me. Here's another one. “The absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence”. That's an aphorism in my field. I've been asked that on the stand and agreed to it in the past until I thought about it. If you want to say I didn't break into that room, go ahead and test everything. Test the safe. And they test the safe and find DNA of others and not you. That absence of evidence is the evidence of your absence. It's not the absolute proof you weren’t there, but it's evidence, and the jury wants to hear it. You've been telling them, test everything. Yet in Chris Taps’ case, this dear man I lost recently, he was tried here in Idaho for a rape and murder, and they had DNA, they had semen on this poor girl's body that didn't match him, and they went to trial anyway. 


Why did they go to trial? Because Chris could have been there. He just didn't leave any evidence because, and the prosecutors say the absence of evidence is not the absence of absence. Of course, it’s evidence. That saying came out of a police lab. It came out of one of the founders of my field; very brilliant people, right? And it's a quote from, from the ancients. 


But the point is that there is a purpose to every human experience. And that purpose introduces bias. The language, you know, listening to all of the great philosophers now, language is the only way that we have to transmit information effectively. And to think through things, symbolic representations, and, and it's full of bias. So that's my new thing, is to talk, to give talks to DNA experts from around the world that trained judges in Montana. They let me speak a few weeks ago.


Jan M. Flynn


 To the judges


Greg Hampikian


Yeah. And I, and I go through this, and I, and I say this saying, What's wrong with it? And most of the judges don't know. The lab people don't know. But if you've reasoned with them, and you say, if you were that person who was accused, wouldn't you say test everything? And if they tested everything, and you weren't there, and other people were, wouldn’t you consider that important evidence of your absence? And then they get it.

 

Jan M. Flynn 


And it's not like in the movies where they would seem like your departed friend, the semen that was found on the victim, was not his. In the movies, that would be a slam dunk. He's out. He's innocent.


Greg Hampikian


He thought it would be, and his lawyer thought it would be. And his lawyer, I thought did a pretty good job, but you know, like, wait a minute, when, when you found this and you when you tested, and it wasn't Chris and you found, you kept that case going??


Jan M. Flynn


And you kept that case going? Why? Yeah. It's hard to understand. It's what is right and what is justice.


Voice Over


You’re listening to Crow's Feet: Life as we age with our guest, Dr. Greg Hampikian, a professor of biology and a DNA expert, who is the founder of the Idaho Innocence Project. He's also an inventor and a writer, and we're talking about how all those things inform his take on his own aging and on what elders have to contribute.


Jan M. Flynn


I want to just take a little pivot here, you know, again, we're talking about people in prison. But essentially, what we're doing is we're taking their time away from them. If it's a death penalty case, we're taking their life away from them, potentially. You know, when we're talking about aging, we're talking about time. Do you ever get really frustrated with what I'm sure is a glacial pace in the justice system? And...


Greg Hampikian


I do, and I try not to fool myself into thinking I know anything about being locked up in prison. I don't know what it's like to suffer from serious mental illness or to be a victim of an assault. But I'm aware that when I talk to my clients, they are painfully aware because it's…we don't take their time. If it was that simple, then they just would walk out the next day, they'd be older, and just take some of their fun, take a kidney, take, you know, whatever, half their pancreas and expose them to UV light, you know, and send them out older and weaker. And I talked to my friends who got out. I had breakfast with a few of them. And I said, I gotta ask you a question. How many of you, you know, they were all in for at least a decade wrongfully.

How many of you would give up your right hand? Would’ve given up your right hand to get out? After a year? 



Jan M. Flynn 


Every one of them.


Greg Hampikian


Yeah, you know, it was so bad. And so I tried to explain to people when the prosecutors negotiate and say, you know, if you implicate your friends, I can't promise you, but I'll talk to the judges that you're being, you're cooperating, you'll get out. Well, I have a client. They offered that to a guy who did a rape and murder. Kerry Robinson was his name; we finally got them out in Georgia. But they offered the guy who actually admitted to raping this woman and shooting someone and robbing they offered him a deal. Tell us who the other guys were. And he gave them Kerry Robinson's name.


Jan M. Flynn 


Who was innocent.


Greg Hampikian


Innocent, and we finally got him out. The other guy, the first, the first guy, he got out of prison. [Wow]. He spent, I don't know how many years, and he got out. His DNA’s all over the victim. You know…



Jan M. Flynn


So, how is that justice? That's like the, you know, the prisoner's dilemma. 


Greg Hampikian


Yeah, when do you incriminate somebody? And you know, and Chris, poor Chris. They talked him into a false confession. And they told him he wouldn't do any time and he wasn't going to. They were trying to implicate one of his friends when they found that the DNA didn't match him either, Ben Hobbs. Then they rescinded the offer they gave Chris, but they kept the confession. It happens all the time. I'm not saying that. We need the justice system and our police officers.. 


Jan M. Flynn Yes, we do


We're very grateful for the hard work that [as am I] Yes, but the system that's, that's what the job of the elders is to look honestly at the system to listen to the young voices, who may have a new way to do things. And to choose a new way, Choose one of the new ways because we know what we've been doing. If we are wrong, we are wrong about everything that will improve. 


Jan M. Flynn


I think that's such a great point, that if you're paying attention, as you get older, one of the gifts of being an elder is to portray when it's time to leave the past behind.


Greg Hampikian


History is what I think humans have over dolphins. That ability to talk, whether to talk through books, or one on one with an elder, that's really valuable. And, you know, we talked about what retirement is or whatever; you're not going to stop doing things you can. You're responsible, you know. You know something, you're a witness to something, and the younger people don't know it.


Jan M. Flynn


So, do you find that your perspective on or your approach to your work and that means all your work, including science, criminal justice, writing, because I know you're also a writer and your other creative pursuits, is changing, as you age? And in what ways? Like how does your aging inform your work?


Greg Hampikian


I used to not be able to sleep if I didn't write. Because I did have that great fear, time was going by, and these books were being written in my head. And I was very disturbed by all of that, and my daughter who wants to be a writer and who's writing now. You know, I've told her that my new outlook is to live the book or poem that you would write, and my life is so full of drama. I mean, obviously, I have people in prison, and I'm trying to get them out. 

We have all the normal problems that challenge families. Have laboratory, nonprofit, trying to write blah, blah, blah. And what I realize is I'm, I'm, I'm living the life that I would have written about. And I don't mean that my life is so great, but I mean, I'm, I'm talking to people, like if I go to the coffee shop, if I order a coffee, I'm getting out of there, knowing something this person's thinking about the barista person next to me. Most people will give, give you the time of day when they see that you're actually trying to get something interesting. And I had... there’s an actress, I was at a coffee shop in like Seattle, and we're standing in line, and she said she was there for an audition or something, and I, you know, write plays, and I said…


Jan M. Flynn


TJ, excuse me, audience, did you hear that? He just tossed those off. And I write plays. Oh, you know, just in case you missed that. As you were. 



Greg Hampikian


 I felt like three of them performed, I think, and it's thrilling, but I'm not very good. But it's really fun. And so I said, you know, oh, yeah, a playwright, I write the words, and I turn it over to the actors like, you know, I feel like God in the Garden of Eden. It's like, Oh, my God, look what they've done. They've ruined it. It always comes out really well. And I've learned to trust actors. So I asked her, as an actress, what is the smallest unit of creativity? And she said, a breath. Because if you say, you know, (sigh) I love you. Or you say, you know, you burst it out. And whatever you do with your breath, that can change the line that I've written, because I don't write breaths. [That's right.] And so you can totally change the meaning of what I'm saying. You know, I really thanked her for that. I love that one. That is a very small unit of creativity. That I've not heard actors talk about that before. [That's wonderful] Yeah, my function is to ask people, What are you reading, watching or thinking about? Do you remember your dreams from last night? You know, like starting something that makes them reflect so they can give me some?


Jan M. Flynn


It's enriching.


Greg Hampikian


Yeah, I live for it. I live for my conversations, mostly with strangers or people I don't know that well. Of course, people I’m close to, they maybe get a little annoyed because I always want to go philosophical.


Jan M. Flynn


I want to just ask you real quick about your writing, which I know ranges from scientific journals, stuff that I would not understand to the New York Times columns, which I did read and love. So what about men? Who needs them?


Greg Hampikian

That was the, that was my editor who edited both of those pieces he came up with that I had renaming the species GynocoSapiens because I think we're basically a female species.


Jan M. Flynn


I don't know how to feel about that. You know, like, I really like my husband, you know [I like it, too]. So we only have 24 hours in a day.  It sure seems like you do an extraordinary amount of the time that you're given. So what is it that fuels you? What keeps your juices and your creative engines running and if they ever stall out? What do you do?


Greg Hampikian


Ooh, that hasn't happened in a while. I mean, I think I haven't been writing in a while. But I've comforted myself; I've learned a lot of the self-care stuff. And so I try not to panic about things that aren't getting done anymore. But what, what keeps me going, I walk it around laughing to myself, well, that I look like a crazy person. And, you know, I wouldn't fault anyone for wondering if this guy walking around laughing to himself and taking pictures of cracks in the road, because I find them beautiful. I like that kind of batty guy in my head who's questioning everything all the time.


Jan M. Flynn


And that's such a great way to look at it. So it's, maybe that's another gift of the aging process. We get to make better friends with those voices in our heads.


Greg Hampikian


I hope so. 


Jan M. Flynn


Yeah, I mean, if you're gonna have voices in your head, at least they should be nice ones. Right? Or you should more like, question the ones that aren’t. [Yeah] So, three quick questions. And this, this might be hard for you. Because the idea is to come up with a real quick or off the wall answer, just blurt it out. 


Greg Hampikian


Like Rorschach.


Jan M. Flynn


Yeah, like Rorschach. So, first of all, what surprises you about your own experience of aging?


Greg Hampikian


I was pretty well prepared. I think it's going better than it could be. Passions fade, music does not do the same thing to me that it used to do, and having to write that novel. Not so much. Like if I'm living well, living well is has become the focus that I’ve become patient, as that's the thing, right? Become patient. 


Jan M. Flynn


Next, if you could, what would you tell your 25-year-old self?


Greg Hampikian


I’d just say it's good. It's good. It's good. 


Jan M. Flynn


I love that. Okay, and last, when it comes to aging, what are you still trying to figure out?



Greg Hampikian


When to quit.


Jan M. Flynn


When to quit?


Greg Hampikian


Yeah. That's something I have no clue about. When to quit. I’m losing the feeling that I could never quit all these things. But what I haven't got a feel for is when to quit. I feel like there are things, you know, my doctor tells me. Look, you can either quit these things, or you're gonna quit. Well, your wife will make you quit. You will cease to function. But what about those things to walk away from? I don't know. That's hard.


Jan M. Flynn


Interesting. So grateful for your sharing your time with us. And it's been a great pleasure speaking with you, Dr. Greg Hampikian.


Greg Hampikian

Well, thank you again. And yeah, I'm really excited, and I love the show.


Voice Over


This episode of Crow's Feet: Life as We Age was produced by me, Jan M. Flynn, with support from our editor in chief Nancy Peckenham, and our sound editor and engineer, Rich Halton. And with help from our Crow's Feet podcast team, Betsy Allen, Nancy Franklin, Lee Bench, Jean Dyson, Warren Turner, Melinda Blau, and Jane Trombley. Crow's Feet Theme Music was composed and performed by Rand Bishop.


Voice Over


Thanks for joining us on this episode of Crow's Feet: Life as we age. Don't miss any of our great stories. Subscribe to Crow's Feet wherever you get your podcasts. And be sure to tell your friends and family to give a listen and leave a rating or review. You can read more Crow's Feet stories online at medium.com/crows-feet. So, until next time, remember to savor every moment. As Tom Stoppard said, “Age is a high price to pay for maturity.”



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