Thursday, 15 April 2010

Protecting the innocent

Sending innocent people to prison and keeping them there are among the worst mistakes government can make. It has happened at least a dozen times in Florida, by one group's count.

Florida could learn from those mistakes -- and, possibly, prevent them in the future -- if the Legislature supports a state senator's push for an "innocence panel."

The senator, Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, added a budget amendment last week that would provide $200,000 for a commission to "examine why people have been sent to state prison for crimes they didn't commit," according to an article in Florida Today. The panel also would work "to prevent more innocent people from going to jail."

A group of attorneys suggested the panel idea to the Florida Supreme Court last year. Last month, the court expressed support for the suggestion but noted a lack of funding for implementation.

Haridopolos' measure aims to clear that hurdle, although $200,000 may not be enough, experts say. Still, it's an important step that deserves the Legislature's backing.

Florida prisoners exonerated

In Florida, 12 prisoners have been exonerated by post-conviction DNA testing since 2001, according to the Innocence Project. The group is a national network that specializes in using DNA evidence to clear people wrongly convicted of serious crimes.

Anthony Caravella, imprisoned for 26 years after being found guilty of a Broward County rape and murder, was Florida's 12th person to be freed by the process. The 1983 crime occurred before DNA testing was available. But last year, the evidence was put to the test. Final results, made public last week, confirmed that his DNA was not found on crime scene materials. The hunt for the real killer continues.

In another case, Alan Crotzer was released from state prison in 2006 after spending 24 years incarcerated for crimes he didn't commit. Crotzer was arrested in 1981 and charged with robbery, kidnapping and sexual battery in connection with crimes committed in Tampa. He was convicted and sentenced to 130 years. He was released after being vindicated by a series of DNA tests and other discoveries. A court vacated his conviction and sentence.

Two years ago, the Legislature appropriately provided Crotzer with $1.25 million to compensate for his wrongful imprisonment, which was the result of flawed testimony from witnesses and the use of questionable tactics by the prosecution.

Four key factors

The Innocence Project has found that at least one of four key factors often plays a role in wrongful convictions. Those factors are:

Eyewitness misidentification, the "leading cause" of wrongful conviction.

Use (and misuse) of scientifically unproven forensic techniques. Comparative bullet-lead analysis, for example, is considered questionable.

False confessions -- particularly when the defendant is a juvenile, has diminished mental capacity, or is under duress. (Caravella, just 15 when charged and with an IQ considered mildly mentally retarded, is one example.)

"Snitch" testimony, which can be highly unreliable.

Criminal justice procedures are needed that reduce the incidence of these errors prior to conviction -- and that provide opportunities for post-conviction relief.

The Innocence Project advocates legal reforms that include requirements to preserve DNA evidence in all cases of serious crime; recording interrogations in their entirety; double-blind police lineups and photo identification procedures; and policies that reduce obstacles to DNA testing late in the "justice cycle."

Compensation for the wrongly convicted and help as they re-enter society are also needed.

Florida already has instituted some of these reforms, but more are necessary.

An "innocence panel," exploring the "how" and "why" of wrongful convictions, would be a powerful, positive step.


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