Former American Bar Association President and prominent Tallahassee lawyer Sandy D’Alemberte filed a petition with the Florida Supreme Court Friday asking it to establish a commission to investigate how wrongful convictions occur.
D’Alemberte, a former Florida State University President who still teaches at the law school, wants the high court to establish have the panel examine cases where people were wrongfully accused and convicted to see what goes wrong in those cases and how the state can improve.
The system, he said, unfortunately fails and sometimes the wrong people get sent to prison.
“They also leave guilty people out on the streets and we destroy families,” he said.
His ideal commission is modeled after one that was established in North Carolina in 2002. The North Carolina commission includes judges, representatives of the Governor’s office, defense attorneys, law enforcement representatives, prosecutors, law professors and victim advocates. It also included a journalism professor and two general interest representatives.
In addition to North Carolina, California, Connecticut, Illinois, New York, Pennsylvania, Texas and Wisconsin also have similar commissions.
But even if the court does like the idea, he could run into a money issue. Funding for the court system, provided mostly by the state Legislature, has been low in recent years, meaning layoffs and cuts throughout the system as a whole. Finding money to establish a commission could be tricky.
“I guess my answer is a question,” D’Alemberte said. “Can we afford to neglect the idea that we’re convicting innocent people? Because, it’s a pretty expensive process to go through these wrongful convictions.”
Florida, like other states, has had high profile cases where people were wrongfully convicted of serious crimes.
Juan Melendez, a Puerto Rican immigrant, has been crisscrossing the country since 2002 after he was freed from a Florida prison where he spent 17 years, serving a sentence for a murder he didn’t commit. He was in Tallahassee in September for a forum at Florida State Law School talking up an ABA report suggesting ways to address wrongful convictions – particularly in death penalty cases –- in Florida. One of the suggestions was the establishment of a commission to investigate wrongful convictions.
And in Illinois, there is a moratorium on the death penalty because of the revelation of several wrongful convictions. Former Gov. George Ryan declared the moratorium in 2000 and his successors have not lifted it. Prosecutors can still seek the death penalty, but at the moment, no prisoner in Illinois would actually be put to death.
D’Alemberte said he has already gotten some big name support for the idea. Recently retired Florida Supreme Court Justice Harry Lee Anstead as well as other former Supreme Court Justices Arthur England and Gerald Kogan have all signed on to the idea, he said. He’s also been talking to other members of the Florida legal community about the idea and said the feedback has been good so far.
“I think we ought to be looking at cases where exoneration has already taken place and see what went wrong with these cases,” he said. “What can we do to improve these procedures?”