Florida lawyers push for commission to reduce wrongful convictions
By Jim Ash • Florida Capital Bureau Chief • December 11, 2009
When an airline crash takes innocent lives, investigators swarm the scene.
When a court destroys innocent lives, there are no investigators and no black boxes, and no system for picking apart the reasons for a wrongful conviction, or recommending ways to fix the problems.
That could change if a group of Florida lawyers, led by former Florida State University President Sandy D’Alemberte, can convince the Florida Supreme Court to create a "Florida Actual Innocence Commission."
In a petition filed Friday, the group notes 11 high-profile convictions in Florida in recent years that were reversed through DNA testing.
"There never has been a comprehensive examination of the facts of these cases nor any official analysis of potential reforms in court procedures, improvements in attorney training, consideration of evidence rules, development of new ethical standards, or other steps to reduce the number of wrongful convictions," the petition states.
The group’s timing couldn’t be better.
Thursday, advocates released the results of a DNA test that they say proves the innocence of James Bain, a Central Florida man who has served the past 35 years in prison for the 1974 rape of a 9-year-old boy.
"It’s beyond comprehension what that means," said Mark Schlakman, senior program director for the Center for the Advancement of Human Rights at FSU who is pushing for creation of the commission. "Thirty five years of your life for something that you didn’t do."
According to the Innocence Project, there have been 245 post-conviction exonerations based on DNA evidence in the United States since 1989. Of those, 17 were inmates serving time on death row. The average exoneree served 13 years in prison. Combined, they served more than 3,000 years.
Of the 245, 146 were African American.
The Florida cases have familiar names for their efforts to be compensated for their wrongful convictions. Alan Crotzer was released in February 2006 after serving 24 years for a 1981 rape, kidnapping and robbery in Tampa. Wilton Dedge was released in August, 2004, after serving 22 years of a life sentence for a sexual battery and robbery conviction in Brevard County.
Prosecutors in the Dedge case relied on a victim's identification, the testimony of a notorious jail-house informant and evidence provided by a dog handler who was later discredited.
"The Dedge case was just chock full of examples of how the system goes bad," D’Alemberte said. "When you get a conviction based on the nose of a dog, or jail-house snitch, you can pretty much be assured that there is something wrong."