Saturday, 19 December 2009

Wrong Convictions Merit Study

Wrong Convictions Merit Study

Saturday, December 19, 2009 10:08 AM EST

As much as our Constitution, our body of laws, and our court system work to prevent it, occasionally an innocent person is sent to prison.

Not innocent in the sense that he didn’t do precisely what he was charged with; innocent in the sense that the wrong person was convicted.

Our judicial system is weighted heavily in favor of the accused, and our sense of justice deems it better that a guilty person go free than that an innocent person go to prison.

But on the rarest occasions, the innocence of a convicted felon is proven, usually by DNA technology that was not available at the time of the original trial.

Such a case emerged last week in Polk County, when Innocence Project of Florida, an advocacy group for the wrongfully convicted, was able to have DNA evidence tested in a 35-year-old case of a Lake Wales man convicted of sexually assaulting a nine-year-old boy.

The imprisonment for three-and-a-half decades reportedly is the longest wrongful imprisonment of any of the 245 people who have been exonerated throughout the country by analysis of DNA evidence.

Until a few years ago, compensation of those wrongfully imprisoned in Florida took a special act of the Legislature.

After a $2 million claims bill was passed in 2005 for a man imprisoned 22 years for a crime he did not commit, the Legislature passed a bill that automatically awards $50,000 per year to people wrongfully sent to prison, provided they have no other felony convictions.

It was a sound decision.

Presumably, James Bain will be awarded $1.75 million for the years he spent in prison. We do not begrudge him a dime.

In the wake of the discovery of Bain’s wrongful conviction, 66 lawyers petitioned the Florida Supreme Court last Friday to create a panel to study the 11 Florida cases that have been overturned in recent years.

Eleven egregious errors out of the thousands and thousands of people convicted is not statistically significant, perhaps . . . except to those 11 defendants.

We hope the court will grant the petition.

One thing may be assumed in Bain’s case: it wasn’t for lack of competent representation.

Bain was defended by the late Jack Edmund, one of the finest criminal defense lawyers in Polk County’s history. He was a master practitioner.

One factor undoubtedly was the absence of DNA technology 35 years ago. Its development has proved to be a valuable tool — usually for the prosecution, occasionally for the defense.

Proper use of that technology now presumably results in fewer wrongful convictions, and in more correct ones.

In addition to looking at the 11 cases that demonstrably went wrong, the committee also should examine why, in Bain’s case, four previous attempts since May 2001 to have DNA tested were rejected.

It was not until Innocence Project got involved, and offered to pay for the testing, that the test was conducted.

If, as we hope, post-trial DNA testing proves that 99.9 percent of convictions are supported by DNA results, society will have the satisfaction of knowing that justice was achieved.

And if one case in a thousand shows a wrongful imprisonment, society will have the satisfaction of seeing an injustice corrected.

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