Friday, 11 December 2009

Fla. panel sought to study wrongful convictions

Fla. panel sought to study wrongful convictions

Associated Press Writer
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Sixty-eight lawyers on Friday asked the state Supreme Court to set up a panel to determine why at least 11 innocent people have been wrongfully convicted of crimes including rape and murder in recent years and recommend ways to avoid that happening in the future.

Former Florida State University President Talbot "Sandy" D'Alemberte filed the petition that includes three former state Supreme Court justices a day after an advocacy group announced DNA testing had cleared James Bain for the rape of a 9-year-old boy near Lake Wales.

Bain spent 35 years in prison - the longest stretch behind bars of 245 people who've been exonerated by DNA nationally.

"Wrongful conviction harms society in a number of ways," D'Alemberte wrote. "The innocent citizen suffers loss of income, damage to reputation, stress on family members, and exposure to brutal prison conditions."

It also means innocent people are imprisoned at taxpayer expense while "the actual criminal goes free and remains a danger to society," D'Alemberte wrote.

The creation of such a panel was one of several recommendations in an 2006 American Bar Association study of capital punishment in Florida. The Supreme Court in October clarified standard jury instructions for death penalty cases in response to another recommendation in that study, which found widespread confusion among jurors.

Lawyers signing the petition included former Justices Harry Lee Anstead, Arthur England and Gerald Kogan and former American Bar Association President Martha Barnett.

D'Alemberte, also a former American Bar Association president, served on the National Advisory Board of the ABA project. It also examined the death penalty in Alabama, Arizona, Georgia, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Tennessee.

The proposal for a Florida Actual Innocence Commission is patterned after a similar panel in North Carolina, one of several states that have taken similar steps including California, Connecticut, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Texas and Wisconsin.

The North Carolina commission has made recommendations dealing with mistaken witness identification, improper collection, labeling and preservation of evidence, false confessions, inadequate defense and errors by police and prosecutors.

"The exonerations in Florida have shown that some of the same problems exist in this state's criminal justice system," D'Alemberte wrote.

Another incentive for avoiding such miscarriages of justice is to save the state from paying compensation to innocent people who have been wrongly convicted.

The Legislature in 2005 passed a claims bill that gave Wilton Dedge $2 million as compensation for 22 years he spent in prison for a Brevard County rape he didn't commit before he was freed in 2004 on the basis of DNA testing.

Since then a law has been passed that automatically provides $50,000 in compensation for every year an innocent person has spent in prison.

The law, though, exempts those who have had prior convictions. That includes Roger Dale Chapman, who was cleared by DNA testing after spending 27 years in prison for a wrongful murder conviction, also in Brevard.

D'Alemberte is representing Chapman in a pending request to the Legislature for a claims bill that would pay him more than $1 million.

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