Wrongly in Prison The ledger 4-13-10

Posted: May 13, 2010 in News and politics

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Printed on page A6

[ INNOCENCE-PANEL LEGISLATION ]

Innocence-Panel Legislation: Wrongly in Prison

Published: Tuesday, April 13, 2010 at 12:01 a.m.

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.

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

Sen. Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, added a budget amendment that would provide $200,000 for a commission to "examine why people have been sent to state prison for crimes they didn’t commit," reports Florida Today.

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.

In Florida, 12 prisoners have been exonerated by post-conviction DNA testing since 2001, reports the Innocence Project, 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. The test was run last year. The results, released recently, confirmed his DNA was not found on crime-scene materials. The hunt for the killer continues.

FOUR PITFALLS

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 DNA tests and other discoveries. A court vacated his conviction and sentence, which resulted from flawed testimony and questionable courtroom tactics.

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

Misidentification by witnesses, 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.

"Snitch" testimony, which can be unreliable.

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.

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.

This story appeared in print on page A6

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