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The importance of conviction integrity

Associate Editor Regular News

A single hair is the only piece of evidence linking a man to a crime scene. All it takes is a DNA test to confirm innocence in his 1976 case.

Maria DeLiberato, an attorney with Capital Collateral Regional Counsel in Tampa, has been unsuccessfully seeking DNA testing on that strand of hair for 20 years. What frustrates her is why it’s so difficult to get it done.

“As a former prosecutor, I sat with victims. I understand the need for finality. But to me, a big flaw in the system is this stonewalling about DNA testing,” she said, adding the nation should not be comfortable with a system where an innocent person might be executed “just for the sake of finality.”

DeLiberato was part of a panel discussion on conviction integrity at the Criminal Justice Summit, moderated by attorney Brian Tannebaum of Miami. She argued that critical evidence used to convict clients should be tested because executing an innocent person would be an absolute travesty.

“The issue of innocence is an issue for everybody,” said Tannebaum, “because when society loses faith in the criminal justice system, that affects the jurors.”

What is conviction integrity, and what is Florida doing about it?

“I define conviction integrity as getting it right,” said Seth Miller of the Innocence Project of Florida, who said his organization’s main goal is to find innocent people in prison and free them.

“It’s about getting it right, but it’s also ensuring that if we make mistakes, we as a system learn from them so that we can hopefully work to prevent replicating them,” added Fourth Circuit State Attorney Melissa Nelson. Nelson runs the first conviction integrity unit in the state, which is serving as a model for new units in Orlando and Tampa.

Nelson said North Carolina’s statewide Innocence Inquiry Commission, which is charged with investigating post-conviction claims of innocence, could be replicated in Florida, replacing local units.

The unit in Nelson’s circuit was established after she took office in January 2017 as a direct result of a reporter’s question during her campaign for state attorney. Nelson enthusiastically expressed interest in conviction integrity — after a man confessed to a first-degree murder he didn’t commit earlier in her career, which Nelson said shook everything she believed about the system. The next day, headlines appeared in the papers that she would establish a unit if elected. Nelson asked the Legislature for resources, and they made an appropriation when they saw value in the project.

Headed by attorney Shelly Thibodeau, the young conviction integrity unit has received 180 petitions, 97 percent of which are from inmates or convicted individuals.

Tallahassee lawyer Reggie Garcia said there are 23,000 clemency cases, and half are for restoration of civil rights. Garcia is fighting to free a deaf client he believes was framed for murder, and whose seven-hour alibi was supported by evidence and eye-witnesses. Garcia’s client, Felix Garcia, is serving a life sentence following a 1983 trial in which he was not provided a sign language interpreter, and could not understand the proceedings. The case is pending clemency and pending parole.

“Parole is an act of grace,” he said. “I think one day, Felix will be free. In the meantime, he’s a sweet man serving time in Virginia, and we hope to get him out.”

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