DES MOINES | Criminal cases in which hair sample analysis played a role in a conviction could get a new hearing thanks to a new office announced Monday by Iowa’s governor.
Gov. Terry Branstad said Monday the state has created the Wrongful Conviction Division, which will partner with a national nonprofit litigation organization to examine past convictions and determine whether errors were made.
The office will focus on convictions reached in the 1980s and early 1990s with the help of hair sample analysis after the FBI this spring admitted its agents gave flawed testimony regarding hair analysis over roughly two decades.
Iowa State Public Defender Adam Gregg said Monday that FBI agents frequently overstated the accuracy and impact of hair samples, and that those federal agents trained state law enforcement agents — including in Iowa — to use those faulty methods.
Gregg’s office will work with the state Division of Criminal Investigations and the Innocence Project to examine Iowa cases — roughly 100 cases initially — and determine if possible wrongful convictions occurred.
The state has hired a lawyer involved with the Innocence Project to work with the new office; her $80,000 annual salary will come out of the Public Defender office’s budget, Branstad said.
“What’s an acceptable error rate for our criminal justice system? Even if we get it right 99 percent of the time and only get it wrong 1 percent of the time, that would mean there are over 80 innocent people currently incarcerated in Iowa prisons,” Gregg said.
The state and the Innocence Project will use DNA evidence where possible to re-examine potential wrongful convictions, Gregg said.
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“What the creation of this division does is represents another step that we can take to ensure accuracy in the Iowa criminal justice system,” Branstad said.
The Innocence Project’s Midwest division is litigating six cases and has 300 on its waiting list, the organization said.
Gregg said Audrey McGinn, the attorney hired to work in the new state office, has freed seven wrongfully convicted individuals.
Nationally, 333 people have been exonerated by DNA testing, according to the Innocence Project, which says it provides direct representation or "critical assistance" in most such cases.
The Innocence Project of Iowa, a separate and local nonprofit group of attorneys, also will assist with the Wrongful Conviction Division’s work.
“Resource constraints slow our work, so we’re always seeking resources to work faster,” Tricia Bushnell, legal director for the Midwest Innocence Project, said in a news release. “This is why partnering with such organizations as the IPI and the WCD will enable all of us to pool our resources, maximize our budgets and provide the best legal representation for innocent and incarcerated people throughout Iowa and the Midwest.”
Gregg said because of resource limitations and the legal timeline, it likely will be years before any exoneration is completed.