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New Forensic Evidence Clears Man Who Spent Years on Idaho Death Row

By Henry Weinstein
LOS ANGELES TIMES -- A man who spent 17 years on death row in Idaho was released from prison Thursday after sophisticated DNA tests demonstrated conclusively that there was no forensic evidence linking him to the 1982 murder of a 9-year-old girl.

A state court judge issued an order freeing Charles I. Fain shortly after Canyon County District Attorney David Young announced that his office had decided against retrying Fain in the slaying of Daralyn Johnson, who was abducted while walking to school in Nampa, a small town southwest of Boise.

Fain, 52, became the 94th prisoner exonerated as a result of DNA testing in the United States in the last decade, the 11th on death row.

Fain, who has always maintained that he was innocent, said “it will take a few days to get used to the idea” of being free. “It’s pretty overwhelming right now,” he said in a brief interview after being released from the state’s maximum security prison near Boise.

“I knew I was innocent,” Fain continued. “When I heard about DNA, I thought it might help me. DNA is my best friend right now.”

Fain said his “faith in God” sustained him during his long incarceration.

“Something kept telling me it would work out in the long run. Technology had to catch up with the case,” he said, referring to the fact that DNA testing was not available when he was tried in 1983.

Fain is the second convicted rapist cleared as a result of mitochondrial DNA testing, which can extract DNA directly from the shaft of a hair and is dramatically altering the field of forensic hair analysis. First used in a Tennessee rape trial in 1996, mitochondrial testing also has been used to secure a number of convictions.

On July 6, U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winwill vacated Fain’s conviction after being presented with the results of DNA tests done on three pubic hairs found on the young girl’s clothes.

At Fain’s trial, an FBI specialist testified that the hairs were similar to Fain’s after examining them under a microscope.

But mitochondrial DNA tests conducted by a laboratory in Virginia in June excluded Fain as the source of the hair.

Fain’s lawyers, Frederick Hoopes of Idaho Falls and Spencer McIntyre of Seattle, moved to have his conviction set aside, and Idaho Attorney General Al Lance did not contest the motion.

Young said later that his office was continuing to investigate the murder. In recent weeks, Young’s office has been looking closely at other suspects, but he said nothing conclusive has been found.

He expressed regret that the Johnson family has “had to relive the brutal murder of their daughter and accept that her killer has not yet been apprehended.”

A week later, Winwill overturned the conviction and gave Canyon County prosecutors until Sept. 4 to either initiate retrial proceedings against Fain or release him.

On Thursday, Young said that “after conducting a thorough review of the evidence, we have concluded that while some evidence exists that Fain was involved in this crime, there is insufficient evidence at this time to prove Fain’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Recent DNA testing has proven that there was another person involved in this case, but there is no forensic evidence proving Fain’s involvement.”