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Foundation grants ‘save’ state’s Innocence Project

Senior Editor Regular News

Foundation grants ‘save’ state’s Innocence Project

Senior Editor

Clutching his worldly possessions in one small packet, Chad Heins walked out of the Duval County Jail on December 4 a free man, after spending nearly 14 years locked up for the stabbing death of his sister-in-law he’d insisted from the beginning he did not commit.

With a broad grin, Heins, now 33 — only 19 when he was sentenced to life in prison — gratefully hugged his lawyers one by one.

Among them were Jennifer Greenberg and Seth Miller of the Innocence Project of Florida, buoyed by yet another flesh-and-blood reminder of the merit of their nonprofit legal clinic’s work: the ninth DNA exoneration in the state and the 210th nationwide.

“After four long years since he received his DNA results proving his innocence and 14 years of imprisonment as an innocent man, Chad Heins can finally walk free with his dignity intact,” said Greenberg, policy director of IPF and co-counsel on Heins’ case, along with Jacksonville pro bono attorneys Robert Link and Robert Beckham.

Until the last-minute decision by Fourth Circuit State Attorney Harry Shorstein to drop murder and attempted rape charges, they were prepared to go to retrial to vindicate Heins.

“I came to Florida to have this end result. It takes so much to get to that point,” said Miller, IPF’s executive director and co-counsel on the case. “When we do get to that point, it’s so unbelievable and so inspirational. Hopefully, there will be many more.”

Freeing the innocent through DNA testing and helping the wrongly incarcerated rebuild their lives is the main mission of the Innocence Project of Florida, Inc.

Finally, the project itself has been freed from financial ruin — thanks in large part to The Florida Bar Foundation’s two administration of justice grants (April 2006-08) totaling $490,666 — making up more than 70 percent of the project’s total annual revenue.

Humble beginnings in January 2003 had two advocates working out of a hallway at the Florida State University College of Law frantically going through more than 1,000 files to beat a six-month deadline for post-conviction DNA motions (which the legislature removed in 2006). The struggle continued to keep their doors open on a shoestring budget with one lawyer and one support staff.

Now housed in an office suite at 1100 East Park Avenue in Tallahassee, the staff has grown to three lawyers, an assistant director (Toni Shrewsbury), and a social worker, as well as help from FSU law student interns who go through files and respond to inquiring inmates within two to four weeks.

No more is it always crisis mode, frantically running to put out fires.

The project is moving forward on policymaking to advocate for criminal justice reform to prevent future wrongful convictions — such as advocating that all law enforcement interrogations be videotaped and for proper safeguards on “jailhouse snitch” testimony — and to lobby the legislature for a global compensation bill to repay the wrongfully incarcerated.

“That Foundation money was absolutely critical. It came through in the nick of time,” said 48-year-old Greenberg, a single mother who weathered the bleak summer of 2005 when she did not get paid.

“It really allows us for the first time to say, ‘OK, how are we going to do innocence work in a huge state like Florida, maximizing our resources?’ Let’s face it; it saved this office’s life. But much more money is actually required to do everything we need to do here. That is just the reality.”

The day Greenberg realized the Foundation grant money was coming through in 2006, she knew she could expand the two-person office and hire two additional lawyers, Richard Junnier and Miller.

Miller, 28, first interned with the Innocence Project in 2003, paid by FSU’s Center for the Advancement of Human Rights. Greenberg lured him back to assume the executive director’s job, so she could focus on policy work, telling him, “I need to hand off the project to a young lawyer with tremendous enthusiasm.”

The next hire was Anthony Scott, who has a master’s in social work.

“No other Innocence Project in the nation has a full-time social worker, not even New York,” Greenberg said proudly.

“We can’t just talk about how these men are tortured in prison and they come out with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder — to nothing. No family, frequently. No clothes. No home. Absolutely nothing but pain.. . .

“The Bar Foundation’s money allowed me to take a step back and say, ‘We need someone properly trained to provide case management and try and give these men the best chance they could possibly have,’” Greenberg said.

“The odds against them achieving health, sanity, membership in a community, and having a positive experience for the rest of their lives is very low. We’ve got to maximize it. We can’t just get them out of prison and say, ‘Bye! You’re welcome!’ It doesn’t work like that.”

From Prison to
Homeless Shelter

O n a recent morning at the Innocence Project office, DNA exoneree Larry Bostic is meeting with Miller and Scott, hoping they can help him, to use his words, “get settled back into society.”

Thanks to his own handwritten motion from prison asking for DNA testing, on September 18, 2007, 51-year-old Bostic was released from prison after serving 19 years for a 1988 rape he didn’t commit.

Bostic is a prime example of someone who pled guilty even though he was innocent — because he said his lawyer convinced him it was not worth the risk of a life sentence to go to trial. Because Bostic pled guilty to the rape, the court dismissed his motion citing the prohibition on granting post-conviction DNA to those who enter pleas. In 2006, after the Innocence Project of Florida helped change the law, Bostic again filed his handwritten motion, and in June 2007, prosecutors agreed to test the evidence, which proved Bostic was not the rapist.

While locked up, he missed out on a lot — including his sister’s and mother’s funerals. When Judge Marc Gold officially cleared his name, Bostic, dressed in prison-issued T-shirt, blue canvas shoes, and beige pants with $100 in his pocket, went straight to a Broward County homeless shelter.

In a phone call December 18, Bostic said joyously, “On Friday, I’m going to get my first paycheck in 19 years!”

Finally, after more than 20 job interviews and rejections for those hard-to-explain missing years on his resume, Bostic snagged a job as cook and dishwasher at Skyline Chili in Ft. Lauderdale.

“I went in with my paperwork saying I was wrongfully convicted, and Ken, my boss, said, ‘You are hired.’”

Things are looking up for his first Christmas on the outside in nearly two decades. No longer in the homeless shelter, he and his girlfriend share a two-bedroom apartment in Lauderhill and they get around in a ’ 97 Kia. In the new year, he hopes the State of Florida will compensate him for his wrongful incarceration — but his earliest hope would be the 2009 session, because of the filing deadlines for claims bills — unless the legislature passes the global compensation bill.

Meanwhile, Bostic continues to search for his true place in the world.

“I want to be part of society again, instead of being a number like I used to be,” Bostic said. “Really, I just want to be at peace. Thanks to Seth and Jen and Anthony. It’s really meant a lot.”

Scott said he took the job as social worker at the Innocence Project for the simple reason he could make a difference.

“Florida needs all the help it can get in terms of offering assistance to oppressed groups of people. And I can’t think of a more underserved group at the moment than Florida’s exonerees,” said Scott, who daily stays in touch with his clients — over the phone, traveling to meet them in their communities and behind bars.

“I would say every single exoneree is presenting with some element of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, if not the full criteria,” Scott said. “Typically, it’s a combination of some anxiety disorder, combined with depression, because of the wrongful conviction. They are having a normal reaction to something that is completely, catastrophically abnormal.”

Turning to Bostic, Scott said, “It’s about surviving, isn’t it?”

“Yes, it is,” Bostic answered softly, with a nod. “I’m not going to let anything rob me from my happiness. I’ve been locked away for X amount of years, and I got beyond the anger part. I can’t dwell on being angry. Now I’ve got to start to get up out of here and being happy helps me keep my sanity. Really, I’m at peace, but not happy-happy. I don’t think I’ve gotten what I deserve yet. I’ve had my youth taken from me. I can’t get it back. I’ve just got to deal with it. It hurts.”

‘It Can Happen to Anybody’

Barnstorming the state on a consciousness-raising tour, Miller introduces audiences to another Florida exoneree: Alan Crotzer, who spent 24 years in prison for a 1981 rape, kidnapping, and robbery he did not commit. On January 23, 2006, Crotzer was freed from prison after DNA testing proved his innocence — and he came very close to becoming the second exoneree compensated by the state, but lost out in the final days of the 2007 legislative session. Now he digs holes for planting trees at a Tallahassee nursery, hoping the 2008 legislature comes through for him.

“It still boggles my mind when I go around the state talking to people about his experience and the Innocence Project that people don’t know we exist,” Miller said. “What you have to realize is people are in their own little bubbles. They have their families, their jobs, and they’re busy with the normal stresses of their lives. They don’t think about some bigger, moral issues that we spend all day thinking about. And that’s OK. But it means it’s our responsibility to put it on their radar.”

When people realize innocent people have been convicted and spent decades behind bars for crimes they did not do, Miller said, “They are appalled.

“It’s so upsetting when mothers call here and their son has just been incarcerated for something. It’s the I-never-thought-it-could-happen-to-me syndrome. They call and say, ‘I believed in American values. I believed in the American justice system, and our judges and prosecutors and jurors, until my son was caught up in the process.’

“That doesn’t always mean we can help them. But I think that is emblematic of the sea change we are trying to affect here at the Innocence Project: to make people realize it’s not just folks of lower socio-economic status. It’s not just blacks and Hispanics. It can happen to anybody.. . . Every guy we talk to who has been exonerated and spent decades in prison tells us, ‘There are more guys like me.’ We just have to find them. That is our mission.”

When Miller speaks to law students, he tells them: “You are going to be the next defense attorneys, prosecutors, and judges. You have a responsibility to take your work seriously. And never think that you are absolutely 100 percent right all of time — because there is always a chance that you are wrong. Therefore, you have to be thorough and diligent, and you have to be constantly searching for truth. Because this is not a game. There are real-life consequences. It’s not about wins and losses. It’s about getting the right person. Because when you don’t get the right person, the right person is out on the street being a burden on society.”

Now that Greenberg has been freed to focus on policy work, she said, “We know that we need to find and free everyone we can, but the lasting impact to the system is going to be: Have we learned these lessons? Have we enacted sensible remedies so that the criminal justice system is better now than it was when we encountered it? That is our obligation. Frankly, that’s everyone’s obligation who is involved in the criminal justice system in the state of Florida. It feels to me like we have a window of opportunity that’s not going to be around forever.”

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