Sunday, February 28, 2010

Innocence panel gets push

Haridopolos seeks review of wrong verdicts


Sen. Mike Haridopolos has asked the Florida Supreme Court to form a panel to examine why people have been sent to state prison for crimes they didn't commit.

The "Innocence Commission" also would help protect more innocent people from going to jail, said the Merritt Island Republican, who in 2011 will take over as president of the Florida Senate.

The plea came in the form of a letter to Chief Justice Peggy Quince.

"Our goal should be justice," Haridopolos said. "I'm known as being tough on crime, but let's make sure the right guy is behind bars."

He said the letter is a result of his research on a special bill for William Dillon, a Satellite Beach man who spent 27 years in prison before DNA ultimately excluded him from key evidence.

Dillon, sentenced to life in prison for murder in 1981, hopes Florida lawmakers will pass the bill this spring to compensate him.

"I think this is a start in the right direction, a long time coming," Dillon said, reacting to Haridopolos' request. "There is a great need for this commission. I will help him in anyway I can. It's time to get it rolling."

Haridopolos said the commission would save the state money by weeding out frivolous lawsuits and keeping guilty inmates from "abusing the system."

It also would eliminate the need for special compensation bills in the future because it would help limit wrongful incarcerations.

Haridopolos said the commission idea had been "floating around" for a couple of years. He said Florida could use a similar project in North Carolina as a model.

"Their hard work has provided an example of how other states should react when faced with a plethora of wrongful incarcerations," he wrote.

Reached in Tallahassee Thursday, Haridopolos said the time is ripe for this to happen.

"The criminal justice system is not perfect," he said. "We need to have something established like this. It will make sure that when a person is sentenced to a life sentence, or even to the death penalty, that they are truly the guilty one."


In 2005, Haridopolos successfully sponsored a compensation bill for Wilton Dedge, a Port St. John man who spent more than 20 years in prison for rape before DNA evidence proved his innocence.

"We need to take a thorough look at why we are in a situation where Floridians were wrongfully incarcerated for decades in certain cases, and we need a plan to prevent this from happening in the future," Haridopolos wrote in the letter to the court.

Seth Miller, executive director of the Innocence Project of Florida – the nonprofit group instrumental in both Dillon and Dedge's release applauded Haridopolos' efforts.

Miller said understanding why the innocent are being convicted in Florida courts will allow the state to update practices and "prevent such tragedies in the future."

Additional Facts
What's next
A bill supporting compensation for wrongful incarceration for William Dillon is expected to go before Florida lawmakers in March.

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