DNA help from the Hampikian lab at the Forensic Justice Project and Idaho Innocence Project, Boise State University
Twenty-six years after being convicted of killing his foster mother, Lacino Hamilton walked out of a Michigan prison, finally a free man. Judge Tracy Green offered an apology before releasing him on during a hearing on Wednesday. His case moved forward quickly after new DNA analysis from male DNA found under the victim’s fingernails was analyzed by Dr. Hampikian, the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office Conviction Integrity Unit, and the Western Michigan University Cooley Law School Innocence Project. Hampikian’s analysis excluded Mr. Hamilton and points to another unknown man. Hampikian said, “I called the lawyers and told them, “I think he’s going home.” After the hearing, Hampikian added, “The victim has held this identity since 1994. It set her foster son free.” The prosecutor and all others working on the case agreed with the DNA analysis.
In April, Hampikian’s lab was asked to review the DNA testing by private investigator Claudia Whitman, who has worked with Hampikian for 20 years on cases of wrongful conviction. Witman (who turns 78 in November) donated countless hours of her time to Hamilton’s case, and her passion for justice led to numerous breakthroughs over the years. Hamilton’s Attorneys Mary Chartier and Takura Nyamfukudza worked pro bono for six years to release him. They gave the data from the new DNA testing results to Hampikian who analyzed them at his Boise State Laboratory and prepared a report detailing the clear exclusion of Mr. Hamilton, and the presence of the other unknown male.
Hamilton had been convicted based on the word of a “jailhouse snitch,” who claimed that Hamilton confessed to him. As the investigation unfolded, evidence indicated the falsity of the snitch’s claim. He made these claims against Hamilton—and numerous others—to obtain leniency for his own criminal conduct.
Mary Chartier, one of Mr. Hamilton’s lead attorneys, stated, “We made the decision long ago to never give up fighting for Mr. Hamilton’s release. While we are beyond thrilled that all charges have been dismissed, he lost 26 years of his life waiting for this day. And, even sadder, is that Mr. Hamilton’s case is not unique. Many of the thousands of men and women who are wrongfully imprisoned have been convicted based on ‘snitch’ testimony. In Mr. Hamilton’s case, the ‘snitch’ claimed in numerous cases that men—men who were strangers—had spontaneously confessed murder to him. Police knew this yet continued to claim that he was reliable and use him as a witness. This is just one of the travesties that occurred in Mr. Hamilton’s case. If we truly want to stop innocent men and women from being convicted and imprisoned, then we have to reform our criminal prosecution system now. There are ways to do it. Michigan just needs to act.”
While Chartier & Nyamfukudza began working on the case six years ago, Hamilton would not be free today if not for the efforts of the team at the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office Conviction Integrity Unit. The CIU was instituted in 2018 by prosecutor Kym Worthy and is led by Valerie Newman. In Hamilton’s case, Newman and her team took evidence provided by Chartier & Nyamfukudza and dug in deep, investigating the case from start to finish finding significant new evidence along the way to support the dismissal of his case.
Not only was the “snitch” testimony against Hamilton found to be false, but the new DNA evidence further supported the dismissal. In the original 1995 trial, the DNA evidence was never disclosed and, therefore, never tested. Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy said, “The Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office Conviction Integrity Unit found potential DNA evidence that had not been previously tested during its investigation. The defendant was excluded from some of that DNA that had not previously been tested. In addition to that, and perhaps even more alarming, is the woefully improper use of informants in this case by the Detroit Police Department. The use of informants can be a very valuable tool in fighting crime and seeking justice, but in this case, it was used and abused horribly.”
Takura Nyamfukudza, Hamilton’s other lead attorney, summed up Hamilton’s release. “Nelson Mandela said that difficulties break some men but make others. President Mandela and Lacino both had significant portions of their lives marred by manifest injustice. Still, they did not fixate on the time that they lost or give up hope. I am elated to be switching—finally—from being Lacino’s legal advocate to just being his friend. Indeed, 2020 was in desperate need of some great news. Here it is!”
Hamilton intends to spend his life advocating for social justice issues. He also plans to go paragliding with the C&N team in Colorado in 2021—a plan that was made years ago and now can finally become a reality.
Hamilton and members of his legal team will discuss his case in detail on the October 14, 2020, episode of the podcast Constitutional Defenders. It can be found on Itunes, www.cndefenders.com, and other major podcast platforms.
Hampikian is Director of the Forensic Justice Project at Boise State University (FJPBSU), and Co-Director of the Idaho Innocence Project (IIP). The FJPBSU and IIP work is sponsored by a grant from the Department of Justice, “Upholding the Rule of Law and Preventing Wrongful Convictions” program, and from donations to the Idaho Innocence Project. For more information on the IIP and the FJPBSU visit us at https://www.boisestate.edu/innocenceproject/
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