Sunday, 21 February 2010

Innocence panel could improve justice in Florida

People working in the criminal-justice system often become hardened to claims of innocence. It's a matter of survival: The claims are often bogus. And the prospect of putting an innocent person behind bars -- or on death row -- is too horrendous to contemplate on a daily basis.

But in recent years, a string of high-profile exonerations -- some sparked by DNA testing, others by dogged investigation -- have forced policymakers to confront the ugly reality. Innocent people are being sent to prison. Not many, but one is too many -- and Florida has seen 11 cases overturned by DNA evidence, with more in the pipeline. State leaders should ask why. Examining overturned cases reveals common elements. Other states have launched innocence commissions to systematically study wrongful convictions, and suggest changes to the criminal-justice system.

To their credit, key Florida officials are lining up behind the concept of an innocence commission. The most recent, Senate President-designate Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, received a harsh education on the injustice of wrongful convictions when he sponsored legislation to compensate Wilton Dedge, one of the first people to be exonerated by DNA in Florida. Dedge spent 22 years behind bars for a rape he did not commit, fighting for the last eight of those years to have DNA evidence tested that would prove his innocence. Even after a private lab cleared him in 2001, the state fought to keep him in prison. He was finally released in 2004.

Dedge's case exposed many of the weak points that experts say spawn bad convictions. He was misidentified by the victim in the case during a photographic lineup, even though she had previously given a physical description of an assailant considerably taller than Dedge. His first trial featured highly dubious testimony from a dog handler who has been linked by a Florida Today investigation to a string of other questionable convictions.

After Dedge's first conviction was overturned, on the basis that his defense attorneys weren't allowed to effectively refute the dog-sniffing evidence, Dedge was tried again under circumstances even more suspicious. That trial featured testimony from a convicted murderer, who had been placed in a prison van with Dedge. Clarence Zacke testified that Dedge boasted about the rape and gave considerable detail. What the jury didn't hear was that Zacke had previously testified for the state in another case, and had his sentence reduced after the Dedge trial.

Faulty eyewitness identification, untrustworthy snitches and unreliable scientific testimony are implicated in many overturned convictions. Other problems include false confessions and the proper preservation of evidence.

Wrongful convictions are costly in many ways. The largest burden falls on the innocent people incarcerated for others' crimes -- but the victims of crime also suffer, because their real assailants aren't caught and punished. Society pays as well, through compensation for those falsely imprisoned.

Finding patches for these gaps in Florida's criminal code isn't a matter of liberal versus conservative, but of right versus wrong. Asking experts to study the issue and recommend changes is an important step to ensure that every case is handled with the ultimate goal of justice.


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