Iowa looking into potential wrongful convictions

Federal grant to allow review of hair-comparison testing

State Public Defender Adam Gregg addresses reporters Monday about Iowa’s efforts to review evidence in potential wrongful conviction cases at a news conference at the Iowa Capitol Building in Des Moines that also involved Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds, Gov. Terry Branstad and Erica Nichols Cook (right), director of the wrongful conviction division of the Office of State Public Defender. Photo by Rod Boshart

DES MOINES — Iowa officials plan to use new federal grant money to review criminal cases that involved microscopic hair-comparison testing to determine whether the forensic evidence was overstated in wrongfully convicting Iowans accused of committing crimes.

State Public Defender Adam Gregg said Monday the wrongful conviction division added to his office last October will use $632,765 in grant money to work with county attorneys and public safety officials in reviewing Iowa cases involving a forensic science technique that has been called into question by the FBI in recent years. FBI Director James Comey sent a letter last June to all U.S. governors encouraging them to review such cases in their states.

“We’re very proud of the fact that here in Iowa we have taken a proactive approach to tackling this issue, and we believe our process can serve as a model for other states to conduct their review,” Gov. Terry Branstad told reporters.

“Justice is a balance,” the governor added. “We want to see that people who commit dangerous crimes are convicted, but we certainly also want to make sure that people that are innocent are not unfairly or unjustly sent to prison.”

As a first step, Erica Nichols Cook, who directs the Iowa wrongful conviction division, said she has been provided 184 DCI lab reports involving criminal convictions of which 96 cases were identified for further review of documents and testimony potentially including microscopic hair comparisons involving a hair found at a crime scene that was compared to a hair of a suspect or a defendant.

“Testimony provided by experts in these cases often exceeded the limits of science in ways that could have led to an injustice or wrongful conviction,” Cook said of the review that focuses on cases between 1980 and 2000.

Cook said the federal grant money will be used to prioritize cases and enlist private attorneys to help examine court transcripts, consult with experts and determine if evidence still exists that can be tested using new techniques to see if DNA results may exonerate a convicted individual or identity the perpetrator.

“This is a yearslong process,” said Cook, who joined Gregg, Branstad and Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds in discussing the effort during the governor’s weekly news conference Monday. “It takes a lot of time to track down evidence, find witnesses, legal filings and other documents from decades and years ago,” she said, as well as getting post-conviction for individuals exonerated of a crime.

“I do believe that all of this time and effort is worth it to ensure that justice is done here in Iowa,” she said.

Gregg noted the division already has had success in a case that did not involve microscopic hair comparison where an Iowa judge vacated the drug possession conviction of an Iowa man who spent 32 days in jail after being arrested by two Des Moines police officers who subsequently were accused of planting meth on him.

“We created the wrongful conviction division in order to correct injustices like that case presented,” he said.

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