The Florida Bar

Florida Bar News

Innocence Commission IDs causes for wrongful convictions

Senior Editor Regular News

Innocence Commission IDs causes for wrongful convictions

Senior Editor

Florida — the state with the dubious distinction of having 13 of 292 post-conviction DNA exonerees nationwide who served an average of 20 years wrongfully locked in prison — has come up with recommendations to help avoid future injustices.

After meeting 13 times over two years, the Florida Innocence Commission — sparked by a petition by 68 concerned citizens filed by former ABA President Sandy D’Alemberte — has issued its final report detailing recommendations to the Florida Supreme Court to eliminate or reduce the causes for wrongful convictions.

Judge Perry As chronicled in the 171-page report by Executive Director Les Garringer, these are the five top causes of wrongful convictions: eyewitness misidentification, false confessions, informants and jailhouse snitches, improper or invalid scientific evidence, and professional irresponsibility. Recommendations include amendments to criminal rules, statutory changes, new or amended jury instructions, and detailed funding requests.

“While studying the topic of professional responsibility,” the executive summary says, “it became crystal clear that a sixth significant cause exists that may lead to wrongful convictions: The underfunding of the criminal justice system in Florida.”

As 18th Circuit Judge J. Preston Silvernail stated: “Without adequate counsel, due process is not assured. If we do not provide adequate funding, there is a loss of the due process of law, which will lead to wrongful convictions.”

Florida International University College of Law Dean Alex Acosta commented: “If one is serious about doing something about wrongful convictions, we must recognize that a lack of funding is the most serious threat that implicates the state attorneys, public defenders, the Attorney General, criminal conflict counsel, and the judiciary. All of the other recommendations of the commission are secondary.”

Ninth Circuit Chief Judge Belvin Perry, chair, remarked: “We cannot ignore the fact that if these recommendations are not given serious consideration, thoroughly vetted and implemented in some form, then the problems suffered in the past of wrongful convictions and innocent people sentenced to prison will continue to occur.

“Clearly, some of these recommendations will cost money, and some may even argue the price of justice is too high. But the consequence of inaction is injustice, and injustice is not what this country was founded upon.”

There were often heated discussions and frustrating clashes among the diverse group of attorneys, legislators, judges, law school faculty, public defenders, prosecutors, and law enforcement officials. Some commission members provided written comments that the group’s recommendations fell short.

“We made some significant and far-reaching recommendations,” wrote Second Circuit Public Defender Nancy Daniels. “I believe, however, that our final report does not go far enough in making bold, uncompromised recommendations to reduce wrongful convictions in our state.”

For example, Daniels said, the commission only recommended “best practice” standards in how eyewitness identification lineups are conducted by law enforcement.

“We should have clearly and unequivocally recommended that the Legislature pass a statute mandating blind administration of photographic lineups and other related reforms. Leaving this critical reform to department discretion is not an adequate remedy to the problem, which is the leading cause of all wrongful convictions,” she said.

University of Florida College of Law Professor Kenneth Nunn, who tried to lead the way to a stronger stand on reforming police interrogation techniques to help prevent false confessions, wrote in frustration: “When we were convened, Chief Justice Canady charged us with the responsibility to ‘identify the common causes of wrongful convictions, and to recommend procedures to decrease the possibility of these convictions in the future.’ In my view, we have failed this charge and abdicated our responsibility to give the citizens of Florida the tools to ensure their criminal justice system does not lock up innocent people.. . . We spent an inordinate amount of time arguing over whether wrongful convictions were a significant problem at all.”

Nunn continued: “Instead of a dispassionate and scientific accounting of the ‘common causes of wrongful convictions,’ our work instead devolved into a highly politicized search for solutions that would be acceptable to all, including those who opposed the fundamental premises of the commission’s work.. . . Our recommendations were developed primarily with an eye toward whether they would be palatable to police and prosecutors and whether they would gain legislative approval. Whether they would prevent wrongful convictions became a secondary consideration.”

Daniels joined others in hoping Florida will follow the lead of other states and create and fund an ongoing Innocence Commission.

“Time will tell whether our commission’s recommendations will be effective in reducing wrongful convictions,” Daniels wrote.

“I believe there will be significant progress if the eyewitness identifications standards are implemented across the state and all defendants’ statements to law enforcement are electronically recorded. It is inevitable, though, that more mistaken convictions will occur, or past mistakes will be discovered.. . . The imperative of avoiding injustice should continue and grow stronger, as we learn what mistakes have been made and gain wisdom in how to solve them.”

The report states: “Whether Florida chooses to create a new commission modeled after the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission, or form another commission to study criminal justice issues, is left to the sound discretion of the judicial, executive, and legislative branches of government.”

News in Photos