On February 24, 1982, while on her way to school in Nampa, Idaho, 9-year-old Daralyn Johnson was kidnapped, raped and murdered. Fishermen discovered her body in the Snake River a few days later. Police conducted an investigation which included collecting hair samples from many men in the area, but for nearly a year, no one was arrested. In March 1983, police questioned Charles Fain. His hair was similar to samples found on the body, he owned a car similar to one seen at the scene of the crime, and he lived a block away from the Johnson family. Fain denied any involvement in the crimes, and passed a polygraph test. Nevertheless, he was charged with kidnapping, sexual assault, and murder.
At Fain’s trial, prosecutors emphasized the similarity between Fain’s hair and pubic hairs found on the victim’s body, and police testified that a shoeprint found near the body could have been Fain’s. Two jailhouse informants testified that they had heard Fain admit to committing the crime; both received reduced sentences in exchange for their testimony (one of which was not disclosed to the defense), and one later claimed that police had threatened him with violence if he did not testify. Fain claimed that he was hundreds of miles away at the time of the crime, and his testimony was corroborated by other witnesses. The judge did not permit results of the polygraph test as evidence, and semen swabs from the body had been destroyed. On November 4, 1983, Fain was convicted, and in March of 1984, he was sentenced to death.
After Fain appealed to the Idaho Supreme Court, the trial judge was ordered to hold a special hearing to investigate the destruction of the semen samples taken from the victim’s body. The judge, however, found that the samples had been destroyed in good faith. In 1989, the State Supreme Court upheld Fain’s conviction, but ordered the judge to re-sentence Fain, saying he had not properly weighed all relevant factors. The judge once again sentenced Fain to death, and in 1991, the State Supreme Court affirmed the decision.
In 1993, new lawyers appealed to the Federal District Court in Boise, and were eventually granted a new hearing. The defense carried out mitochondrial DNA tests on the crime scene hairs, a type of testing that had been unavailable at the time of Fain’s conviction. These tests proved conclusively that the pubic hairs found on Johnson’s body did not come from Fain. In June 2001, a U.S. District Court judge set aside the conviction. The prosecution did not seek a retrial, and Fain was released on August 23, 2001.
– Alexandra Gross