Friday, July 30, 2010

Death row inmate refuses to leave cell for hearing

By Anthony Colarossi, Orlando Sentinel

12:21 PM EDT, July 30, 2010

Death Row inmate John Huggins refused to appear via video conference call at a hearing this morning that was originally intended to deal with his request to fire his legal team.
Orange-Osceola Chief Judge Belvin Perry questioned a corrections officer up at the state prison complex near Starke about Huggins. The officer said he refused to leave his cell and remained on his bunk this morning, when asked to go to another room to take part in the hearing, scheduled for 10:30.
Huggins' defense attorney, meanwhile, argued that an upcoming hearing on post-conviction appellate claims made in this case should be delayed until the question of whether Huggins is competent is settled.
But Perry insisted that a hearing long scheduled for next month will go on regarding certain claims, while the question of Huggins' competence is still being decided. Perry plans to spell out which claims will be heard in an order soon to be released. Some of those claims involve ineffective counsel and prosecutorial misconduct.
Perry said "this case is mired in quicksand" and said he can't know for sure if Huggins is refusing to cooperate with his lawyers because he is delusional or because he is trying to delay the process.
Also, Perry said he may compel Huggins to be transported to Orlando for that hearing whether he wants to attend or not.
The parties had some discussion about whether to hold the hearing, which may last a few days, at the prison in northern Florida. But ultimately Perry decided to hold it at the Orange County Courthouse because many of the witnesses are in and around Orlando and the trip to Starke would be an inconvenience for many involved.
"We will have it here," Perry said. "If he refuses to come...well, let me think about it. I think I will have him transported."
The inmate wants a new team of attorneys to handle the appeal of his conviction of strangling 30-year-old construction engineer Carla Larson in June 1997.
Her body was found partially buried near Walt Disney World.
There are lingering questions about Huggins' competence. He must be found competent to assist the legal team handling his case and challenging his death sentence.
But during a hearing earlier this month one of his attorneys told Perry that Huggins also wants to get rid of his legal team and refuses to meet with them.
"He wants other counsel," attorney David Gemmer said. "He's expressed that to us repeatedly."
Huggins himself has filed papers requesting that his legal team with the Capital Collateral Regional Counsel be removed.
In October, Perry found Huggins competent to proceed. However, his legal team had another evaluation done by Tampa-based psychologist Richard Carpenter in November and that testing indicated he was not faking delusions to stave off his execution.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Family of prisoner hopes evidence will set him free

Family of prisoner hopes evidence will set him free
His conviction has weighed heavily on them for years

James Bain, center, who was recently released from prison after a wrongful conviction, attends a news conference to support the family of Derrick Williams, who was convicted in a 1993 rape. The Innocence Project says new evidence shows Williams did not commit the crime.

By Todd Ruger

Published: Wednesday, July 28, 2010 at 1:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, July 28, 2010 at 12:10 a.m.
( page 1 of 3 )

MANATEE COUNTY - Derrick Williams' relatives in Palmetto hope new DNA evidence that may exonerate him of rape and kidnapping charges will also clear their family name.

Click to enlarge
Inez Williams, Derrick Williams' mother, watches her family's children during the news conference. Her husband, Derrick's father, died years ago. Williams' niece said Tuesday that the family has faced ridicule and disgrace from the community since Williams was convicted and sentenced to life in prison 17 years ago. Some people acted as if the relatives were guilty, too.

"It's like gangrene, it just eats away at your skin," said Williams' niece, Tawanda Means, who fought tears as she read a prepared statement and answered questions from reporters.

After all other options, the family wrote the Innocence Project of Florida in 2007, asking for help in a 1993 case where Williams had always maintained his innocence.

The Innocence Project attorneys called Means on Sunday to say they believe a new test on a key piece of evidence is enough to prove Williams, 47, is innocent and release him from prison.

It was a day Williams' father, who died several years ago, had all but given up on. Means recalled him sitting in the yard, and thinking about how to fight the conviction, saying, "What can we do, we're not a wealthy family."

The family is elated, even though prosecutors say the new evidence does not exonerate Williams and have asked for a hearing on the case. The court battle to vacate Williams' conviction and sentence could take months, but the Innocence Project is confident in their case.

"I was like, 'Thank you, father, our prayers have been answered,'" Means said.

Williams has missed out on celebrating births and marriages with his family, Means said. Children in the family only know him through photographs.

But most importantly, he missed the death of his father, Means said. "My grandfather went to his grave without being able to say goodbye to his youngest son."

Williams' mother, Inez Williams, sat on a nearby bench during the news conference, content to watch children as the others stood in front of television cameras.

Among the crowd outside the Manatee County courthouse Tuesday were some of the seven people, including family members, who testified at the trial that Williams was eating chicken and drinking beer with them at the time of the rape.

"Seventeen years have gone by and nobody's listened to what they said," said Seth Miller, Innocence Project executive director.

Still, Means said she believes in the justice system and following the law.

"We fall short," Means said, "and none of us are perfect."

Police accused Williams of abducting a 25-year-old woman from her Palmetto home, forcing her into her car and driving her to an orange grove to rape her.

The case was largely based on the victim's identification of Williams, but her description of her assailant differed from Williams and her story had several inconsistencies. Misidentification is often the cause of wrongful convictions that are later overturned by DNA evidence, the Innocence Project said.

The woman escaped from the rape with her attacker's gray shirt. She identified Williams as her attacker, and Williams' girlfriend said he left that day with a gray shirt and returned with a red one.

At the time of his arrest, Williams offered to give blood and saliva samples. But there was no sperm found to compare the genetic material, and DNA techniques used to find samples on evidence were not known then.

The gray shirt was retested for DNA evidence this month, and it showed Williams did not leave the sweat and skin cells left on the back collar of the shirt, the Innocence Project says.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Innocence Project demands release of Palmetto convict

Innocence Project demands release of Palmetto convict


Read more:

BRADENTON — Dozens of relatives of Derrick Williams, incarcerated since 1993, met outside the Manatee County Courthouse this morning after The Innocence Project of Florida reopened his case, saying new DNA tests show he is not guilty of a 1992 kidnapping and rape.

Tawanda Means, Williams’ niece, spoke on behalf of the family, stating they are overjoyed and wait for the day Williams will be cleared of the charges and released from prison. They continue to rely on their faith, she said.

“He doesn’t want to sit there,” said Means. “He’s been saying he’s innocent the whole time. Bad things sometimes happen to good people.”

Williams, of Palmetto, was sentenced to life. Attorneys with The Innocence Project filed a motion with the Manatee clerk of court today, asking for Williams to be exonerated of the charges.

In March 1993, a jury found Williams, now 47, guilty of the rape and kidnapping of a woman Aug. 6, 1992, in a Palmetto orange grove. Williams maintained his innocence throughout his trial, and now the Innocence Project says it has the evidence to prove it.

His DNA was not collected from the collar of the shirt entered into the trial, his attorneys said.

Prosecutors initially opposed the request, saying there was little evidence — namely a T-shirt the assailant wore and the victim’s pantyhose, used to tie her wrists — still in existence.

Chief Assistant State Attorney Ed Brodsky said the lack of DNA on the assailant’s shirt does not prove Williams’ innocence.

“We feel that a hearing is important,” Brodsky said.

The rest of the evidence, including hairs and the victim’s jacket, was destroyed in a flood of a Manatee County Sheriff’s Office evidence room.

Means said her family has been the subject of ridicule and has had their named dragged through the mud since Willliams’ conviction.

“It’s like gangrene. It just eats way and eats away at your skin,” Means said. “What is it that we can do? We’re not a wealthy family, but we have a lot of love here.”

The family wrote to the Innocence Project in 2008 asking for help. Each year, the organization receives approximately 1,200 requests from prisoners and families asking for representation. The group uses DNA testing to check to see if prisoners are innocent of crimes they are convicted of.

“Without them, my uncle would have spent his life there,” Means said.

Williams has Served Over 17 Years for a Rape he Did Not Commit; Attorneys Call for Immediate Release

Innocence Project of Florida, Inc.

1100 East Park Avenue, Tallahassee, FL 32301

Telephone 850.561.6767 Fax 850.561.5077

For Immediate Release PRESS RELEASE

July 27, 2010


Seth Miller, Esq.: 202.341.2127

Melissa Montle, Esq.: 561.843.9304

DNA Testing Demonstrates Derrick Williams is Innocent:

Williams has Served Over 17 Years for a Rape he Did Not Commit; Attorneys Call for Immediate Release

Bradenton, Florida—On Monday, July 26, 2010, DNA Diagnostics Center, a nationally recognized forensic laboratory in Fairfield, Ohio, issued a report in the case of State of Florida v. Derrick Williams, which demonstrates Williams’ actual innocence of an August 1993 kidnapping and rape in Palmetto, Manatee County, Florida.

Upon an agreement by Williams’ attorneys at the Innocence Project of Florida and the State Attorney, the court ordered DNA testing on the t-shirt worn by the assailant before the rape and left in the victim’s car at the end of the crime. The testing excludes Derrick Williams as the donor of the DNA on the inside of the collar of the assailant’s t-shirt, confirming that someone other than Williams raped the victim and left the t-shirt in her car. “After over 17 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit, the State should do the right thing and release this innocent man immediately,” said Williams’ attorney, Melissa Montle, staff attorney for the Innocence Project of Florida (IPF).

At Williams’ trial, the State made the assailant’s t-shirt the central piece of physical evidence against Williams, even though there was an indication even before trial that the shirt may have belonged to someone else. Before trial, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement determined that a “Negroid” hair found on the t-shirt could not have come from Williams. Williams was convicted when the jury failed to believe that scientific evidence or his unrefuted alibi evidence given by six different witnesses (he was at a family barbeque); instead relying on the inconsistent and contradictory eyewitness identification by the victim. “Today’s DNA results demonstrate conclusively that the victim was mistaken about who raped her and that Derrick is innocent,” said Montle.

According to the Innocence Project of Florida, witness misidentification is the leading cause of wrongful convictions, contributing to 75% of the 255 wrongful convictions later overturned by DNA testing nationwide.

Other important physical evidence, including the victim’s rape kit and the foreign “Negroid” hair from the assailant’s t-shirt, were improperly stored and unlawfully incinerated by the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office (MSO) in late 2003. Internal MSO memos indicate that, as early as 1996, leadership at MSO was made aware of poor climate control and mold issues in one of its storage facilities. Yet it never made any effort to move the evidence, examine it, or determine whether any pieces of evidence were salvageable. Instead, the evidence in the case of Derrick Williams and nearly 4,000 other criminal cases was summarily destroyed by mass incineration.

MSO denied the evidence damage and destruction to the press. It never informed defendants or defense attorneys in these cases about the destruction. The mass destruction was only revealed through the vigorous eighteen-month investigation of the Williams case by the Innocence Project of Florida. “The State simply threw away important evidence in Derrick William’s case and in thousands of other cases, and then pretended like it never happened. We now know that Derrick is innocent. How many others will never get the chance to prove their innocence because of this debacle?” said Seth Miller, executive director of the Innocence Project of Florida.

For his part, Derrick Williams has been a model citizen in the Florida prison system. During his wrongful incarceration, he earned a GED and was an inmate supervisor for Prison Rehabilitative Industries and Diversified Enterprises (PRIDE) refurbishing Department of Corrections vehicles and fire trucks for first responders nationwide. When informed of the results, Williams said, “It makes me extremely happy that it’s finally coming to an end. The results prove what I have said all along—I am innocent.”

The Innocence Project of Florida (IPF) is a 501(c)(3) organization dedicated to finding and freeing innocent people in Florida prisons. IPF represents Derrick Williams for free, including all costs associated with DNA testing and litigation. IPF’s website is



Statement of Facts: State of Florida v. Derrick Williams

On March 19, 1993, Derrick Williams was convicted of kidnapping, sexual assault, robbery, grand theft auto, and two counts of battery and was later sentenced to life in prison by the Twelfth Judicial Circuit Court in Manatee County, Florida. Exactly 17 years later, on March 19, 2010, that same Court granted DNA testing of biological material on the assailant’s t-shirt. On July 26, 2010, a report was issued revealing DNA results that demonstrate Williams’ actual innocence.

The DNA: New DNA results reveal that DNA from the assailant’s skin cells and sweat on the inside collar of the assailant’s t-shirt came from someone other than Williams, thus confirming that someone other than Williams committed the kidnapping, sexual assault, robbery, grand theft auto, and batteries, and left his t-shirt in the victim’s car. Williams’ attorneys, the Innocence Project of Florida (“IPF”), requested this DNA testing in 2009 and the State Attorney for the Twelfth Circuit agreed to the testing. The testing was paid for by IPF and performed at DNA Diagnostics Center, a private lab in Fairfield, Ohio.

The Crime: After she arrived home from work on August 6, 1992, the victim was kidnapped in her own car by an unknown black male and taken to a nearby orange grove where she was raped in the back seat. Before the rape occurred, the assailant removed the t-shirt he was wearing and told the victim to cover her face with the shirt. When the assailant exited the car to open the trunk, she escaped and drove home with the assailant’s t-shirt still in the car. Law enforcement collected the t-shirt for processing.

Williams was known to law enforcement in the area for property crimes leading them to include him in the photo line-up shown to the victim. Contrary to sound police procedure, two photos of Williams were included in the same photo line-up. After viewing the lineup with the suggestive double photo inclusion, the victim identified Williams as her attacker. Although Williams had an alibi, never confessed to the crime, and always maintained his innocence, police arrested him.

The Trial: The State’s case was based largely on the victim’s identification of Williams as her assailant and on evidence linking the t-shirt left in the car to Williams. In addition to the State’s evidence, the Defense called 7 alibi witnesses, including Williams himself, who were all sure that Williams was at a family barbecue at the time of the offense.

(1) Victim’s Misidentification: The traumatized victim was inconsistent with her description of her assailant and her description of how well she was actually able to see him. In fact, her best opportunity to see her assailant was when she first drove up to her house with her window cracked and he was standing on her porch 20 feet away. After that glimpse, her view was completely obstructed for the remainder of the crime—he had her in a head lock in the car before the rape and his t-shirt was used to cover her face during the rape. The victim’s physical description of the assailant also did not match Williams’ appearance. She initially described her assailant as between 5’6” and 5’8” with a scar on his gut whereas Williams is 5’11” and has a scar on his back. At trial, the victim changed her testimony to eliminate this discrepancy by stating that she did see a scar on her assailant’s back, even though she had testified unambiguously at her earlier deposition that she never saw her assailant’s back.

Even more telling was law enforcement’s preparation of a photo line-up which included 2 photos of Williams. This type of double photo inclusion is improper and inherently suggestive. After viewing the photo line-up with 2 photos of Williams, the victim identified Williams as her attacker, but was admittedly only 80% sure it was him. After a subsequent live line-up, she stated she was positive Williams was the perpetrator. DNA results now prove that someone other than Williams left the t-shirt in the victim’s car during the rape and that the victim’s tainted identification of Williams as her rapist was a mistake.

(2) The Assailant’s T-Shirt: The State’s Key Piece of Physical Evidence: It is undisputed that the t-shirt on which DNA testing was performed belonged to the assailant. More specifically, it was the State’s theory at trial that the assailant who raped the victim was wearing the t-shirt when he first met her and kidnapped her, took the t-shirt off and covered her face with it to prevent her from identifying him during the rape, and inadvertently left the t-shirt in the victim’s car when she managed to surprise him and escape. The State then attributed the t-shirt to Williams in order to convince the jury that he was the assailant. The victim herself identified the t-shirt as the assailant’s and it was admitted into evidence as State’s Exhibit 9A. In addition, Williams’ girlfriend made a pretrial statement saying that Williams owned a similar shirt but repudiated that statement at trial. The State continued to contend that the t-shirt belonged to Williams even though a “Negroid” hair extracted from the shirt, according to FDLE, could not have originated from Williams. DNA results now prove that the State’s theory that Williams was the assailant and left the t-shirt in the car, along with the evidence used to prove this theory, was simply wrong.

(3) Williams’ Alibi: In his defense, 6 witnesses, including family, friends, and neighbors, provided unrefuted testimony that Williams was at a barbecue at his mother’s house when the crime occurred. In addition, Williams took the stand in his own defense and testified that he was at the barbecue, he did not commit this crime, and the assailant’s t-shirt did not belong to him. DNA results now prove Williams’ alibi to be credible and his claims of innocence to be true.

Unlawful Destruction of Evidence: In addition to the assailant’s t-shirt, an abundance of other evidence was collected by law enforcement after the crime. This other evidence also could have been DNA tested to reveal the rapist’s identity and included (1) the victim’s rape kit, which contained semen; (2) floor mats from the victim’s car, which indicated the presence of bodily fluids; (3) Negroid hairs extracted from the assailant’s t-shirt; (4) Negroid hairs extracted from the car’s vacuumings; (5) the assailant’s white cloth left in the car, which indicated the presence of bodily fluids; and (6) the victim’s clothing worn during the rape. Unfortunately, each of these items (along with evidence from thousands of other cases) was negligently stored by the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office (“MSO”) in a storage unit that flooded. According to internal memos, the possibility of major water damage was known to MSO as early as 1996. MSO incinerated each and every single piece of evidence in this water damaged storage unit in 2003, without first performing a thorough review to determine the extent of the damage and whether evidence was suitable for future storage, and without notification to defendants or their counsel affected by the damage.

Conclusion: Unfortunately for Mr. Williams, who has spent 17 years in prison, this DNA evidence did not exist at the time of his trial. Now that the key piece of physical evidence has been analyzed using modern science, DNA testing proves that skin cells and sweat on the inside collar of the assailant’s t-shirt belong to someone other than Derrick Williams. Thus, the assailant’s t-shirt, which was once the lynchpin of the State’s case linking Williams to the crime, is now actually powerful, affirmative evidence of innocence.


Derrick Williams: Unlawful Destruction of Evidence

The Manatee County Sherriff’s office (“MSO”) destroyed evidence in thousands of Manatee County criminal cases, due to its improper storage and mishandling of the physical evidence.

During its routine investigation and review of Derrick Williams’ case, the Innocence Project of Florida (“IPF”) discovered that much of the evidence had been destroyed under mysterious circumstances. It appeared that MSO had not been open and honest about the circumstances which surrounded the destruction of evidence in Williams’ case. In addition, MSO would not produce the required contemporaneous documentation regarding the destruction.

Specifically, IPF sent its first formal public records request regarding evidence in Williams’ case on August 4, 2008 and received no response. On September 29, 2008, IPF called MSO in an attempt to follow up on the request and locate the evidence. At this time, IPF was told by the supervisor of the property room at MSO that MSO was not in possession of any evidence in the Williams case. MSO provided no documentation to prove this claim. On October 30, 2008, IPF was able to reach the supervisor of the MSO Crime Lab who stated that any and all evidence and destruction orders would be in the possession of the property room. So, on November 3, 2008, IPF followed up with the supervisor of the property room who on this date stated that the Williams evidence was either destroyed or in “the boxes” but that these “boxes” were in the process of being moved and it would be months before she could locate “the boxes” or the destruction orders for the Williams evidence. Unwilling to wait months, IPF sent a renewed public records request on November 25, 2008, laying out the conflicting information received up to that point from MSO.

On December 5, 2008, IPF received a written response from Major Keith Stewart at MSO stating that it was possible that the Williams evidence was destroyed when the entire contents of one MSO storage unit, the First Union Bank vault (“vault”), was lost due to water and mold, but this had not yet been determined. This was the first that IPF had heard about possible water damage. The Major also stated that if it was discovered that the evidence was indeed destroyed by the water damage, documentation would be provided to IPF. A second response from Major Stewart was received on the same date, December 5, 2008, stating that the Williams evidence was indeed in the vault that was damaged by water and mold and any and all evidence in that facility was completely destroyed. This destruction of an entire MSO storage facility occurred between the months of November and December 2003 by burning the evidence in an incinerator.

In response to Major Stewart’s second letter purportedly confirming the destruction of the Williams evidence, IPF sent another letter on December 19, 2008 requesting proof of destruction pursuant to Florida Statutes and requesting a complete list of all of the evidence that was destroyed in the Williams case. On December 23, 2008, still troubled by this purported mishandling and destruction of valuable evidence, IPF followed up with a written request to MSO specifically for contemporaneous destruction orders, an itemized list of evidence destroyed, written confirmation that a thorough search for the evidence was performed, and a complete list of all of the cases in which evidence was destroyed in November-December 2003.

On January 2, 2009, IPF received a response from MSO General Counsel acknowledging receipt of the recent requests and promising to continue to work to provide the requested documents and information. During a call with MSO General Counsel on January 21, 2009, IPF learned that all of the requested information was in existence and would be put together within a few weeks. On February 25, 2009, MSO General Counsel provided IPF with the Williams’ case file and documentation regarding the destruction of the Williams evidence. On this date, IPF was assured that it would receive a complete list of all cases in which evidence was destroyed due to water damage in the vault once it was compiled. MSO provided this list of thousands of cases on March 18, 2009. After over a year and a half of haggling, IPF received all of the information it requested from MSO. During this same timeframe, MSO was patently denying to the press that a flood or water damage occurred in any of its storage facilities and apparently failed for over five years to notify anyone outside of MSO that the mass destruction of evidence occurred.

Unfortunately, the information received by IPF proved that, indeed, the invaluable Williams evidence was destroyed by incineration due to improper storage and mishandling by MSO. This evidence included (1) the victim’s rape kit, which contained semen; (2) floor mats from the victim’s car, which indicated the presence of bodily fluids; (3) Negroid hairs extracted from the assailant’s t-shirt; (4) Negroid hairs extracted from the car’s vacuumings; (5) the assailant’s white cloth left in the car, which indicated the presence of bodily fluids; and (6) the victim’s clothing worn during the rape. IPF believed in Williams’ innocence and pursued DNA testing of the only 2 pieces of evidence still in existence—the assailant’s t-shirt and the victim’s pantyhose used as a ligature.

Not only was MSO’s avoidance of the truth and resistance to providing proper documentation a problem, but included in the documentation ultimately provided to IPF was proof that MSO knew of the possibility of water damage in the vault, yet did nothing to prevent it. In an internal MSO memorandum dated October 24, 1996, the supervisor of the property room noted the possibility of a major problem with water/sewage damage of evidence in certain areas. Yet, it appears that no action was taken to address this problem because in July 2001 the supervisor of the property room in two memorandums requested authorization to destroy evidence in hundreds of cases in the vault noting that “all of the cases” in the vault “have built up a lot of mold/mildew which is a hazard to your health.” It is disturbing to note that MSO requested destruction of this evidence without taking any steps to remediate the damage or move the evidence. On May 17, 2002, the property supervisor requested that photographs be taken of the damaged evidence in the vault in order to bolster the request for destruction. Again, the request was for photographs, not for retrieval or remediation of the evidence. On May 12, 2002, citing a non-functioning dehumidifier, an MSO memorandum stated that the evidence in the vault should be removed and disposed. Finally, an MSO memorandum dated October 16, 2002 noted that while “Operation Vault Clean-out” was to begin on July 23, 2002, a health problem required MSO to push the cleaning back to October 2002.

Never in any of these internal memoranda does anyone associated with MSO even consider that the evidence should be sorted through, that some of it may still be in good, usable condition, that some of it may be exculpatory, or that contemporaneous records should be made of its destruction. Nor do they consider notifying the criminal defendants or attorneys involved. Even after the public became aware of this improper and unlawful mass destruction of evidence, MSO downplayed the importance of the destroyed evidence and asserted that the destruction was harmless because all of the lost evidence was for cases that had already gone through the legal system. Derrick Williams’ case “had already gone through the legal system.” In fact, the State had knowledge of the existence of exculpatory evidence in the Williams case, namely a Negroid hair from the assailant’s t-shirt that FDLE determined before trial could not have originated from Derrick Williams, and still unlawfully disposed of this evidence as part of its mass destruction of evidence.

This improper storage and unlawful destruction affected thousands of Manatee County defendants. New DNA test results now demonstrate that one of them—Derrick Williams—is innocent. It is frightening to consider how many more are innocent but will be unable to prove their innocence due to this unlawful mass destruction of evidence in Manatee County.

Lawyers: DNA test exonerates Manatee man

Lawyers: DNA test exonerates Manatee man

By ROBERT NAPPER and DUANE MARSTELLER - Herald Staff Writers Buzz up!

BRADENTON — New DNA testing has revealed that a Manatee man convicted of a 1992 kidnapping and rape should be released from prison because he is innocent, his lawyers said Monday.

The life sentence of Derrick Williams, of Palmetto, should be vacated based on new DNA testing, attorneys with the Innocence Project of Florida say. They plan to hold a press conference at 10:30 a.m. today in a courthouse courtyard in advance of filing a motion with the Manatee clerk of court.

In March 1993, a jury found Williams, now 47, guilty of the rape and kidnapping of a woman Aug. 6, 1992, in a Palmetto orange grove. Williams maintained his innocence throughout his trial, and now the Innocence Project says it has the evidence to prove it.

Testing of DNA on a shirt entered into evidence during Williams’ trial — which the victim claimed her attacker was wearing at the time of her rape — excludes Williams, said Innocence Project attorney Melissa Montle.

“The DNA excludes Derrick Williams and absolutely exonerates him,” Montle said.

The Innocence Project entered Williams’ case in July 2009, when it asked a Manatee County Circuit Court judge to allow DNA testing.

Prosecutors initially opposed the request, saying there was little evidence — namely a T-shirt the assailant wore and the victim’s pantyhose, used to tie her wrists — still in existence.

The rest, including hairs and the victim’s jacket, were destroyed in a flood of a Manatee County Sheriff’s Office evidence room in 2001.

After the press conference, during which Williams’ family members are expected to speak, Williams’ attorneys will file the motion with the Manatee clerk of court, and deliver by hand a copy to the Manatee State Attorney’s Office.

Montle said the project sought a meeting to discuss with Manatee prosecutors the new DNA findings but were rebuffed.

That’s because the state plans to fight in court the motion to vacate Williams’ sentence, according to Assistant State Attorney Ed Brodsky.

“Our meeting will be held in a court of law,” he said.

The presence of DNA other than Williams’ on the shirt does not exonerate him of the crimes, Brodsky said.

Manatee Sheriff Brad Steube said Monday that other evidence implicates Williams, including the victim pulling his picture out of a photo lineup.

Brodsky declined to discuss the facts of the case, citing the pending motion. But court documents filed by the state in response to the Innocence Project’s request for DNA testing say the genetic material on the shirt is not enough to prove Williams innocent.

“Even if DNA foreign to the defendant and victim were found on the T-shirt or the pantyhose, that fact alone would not exonerate the defendant,” Assistant State Attorney Spencer Rasnake wrote in the state’s response. “These items were susceptible to DNA transfer prior to the assault and any foreign DNA on the items would not prove or disprove the assailant’s identity.”

Innocence Project attorneys countered, saying they wanted to test the shirt’s collar and armpits, areas that were less likely to pick up stray DNA.

Both sides ultimately settled, and Manatee County Circuit Judge Debra Riva ordered the DNA testing in March of this year, court records show. Montle said the project had hoped that the state would not ask for a hearing on the motion expected to be filed today.

“We hope we won’t have to go there, we hope the state does the right thing,” she said.

Attorneys for the Innocence Project are not only taking aim at the state’s case against Williams, but Montle also expressed concern over the destruction of evidence during the flood of the sheriff’s evidence room. In the flood, several pieces of evidence in Williams’ case were destroyed.

Montle claims sheriff’s officials did little to salvage evidence lost in the flood, including items from Williams’ case.

“Our concern started to grow when we received the whole list of everything lost in literally thousands of cases,” Montle said. “There was no apparent effort to see if some of it would be salvageable.”

Steube denied that.

“We made every effort to find any evidence that could be recovered. We were very upset that the evidence was lost to an event we had no control over,” the sheriff said.

Meanwhile, the Innocence Project has informed Williams, who is incarcerated in a Hardee County prison, that the testing excluded him as the source of the DNA on the shirt.

“He was emotional, happy and thrilled. Now he is just waiting for the state to do the right thing,” Montle said.

Also expected at today’s news conference is James Bain, who spent 35 years in Florida prisons before he was exonerated in December after DNA evidence showed he was innocent of a 1974 rape.

The Innocence Project also was involved in that case.

DNA evidence may free man after 17 years

DNA evidence may free man after 17 years
T-shirt that was key evidence in prosecution could now exonerate him
Derrick WIlliams

By Todd Ruger

Published: Tuesday, July 27, 2010 at 1:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, July 27, 2010 at 12:54 a.m.

MANATEE COUNTY - The same gray T-shirt that helped put Derrick Williams of Palmetto in prison for life on a rape conviction in 1993 has resurfaced as the piece of evidence that may exonerate him.

A woman escaped from the rape with her attacker's gray T-shirt, and she identified Williams in court as the man who took off his shirt to cover her face during the attack. Williams' girlfriend also told the jury that he left home that day wearing a gray shirt but returned with a red one.

But on Monday, Williams' attorneys revealed that new DNA tests of sweat and skin cells on the inside of the shirt collar did not come from Williams. They say the results prove Williams is innocent, and that he has spent the past 17 years in prison on a wrongful conviction.

"The T-shirt has the DNA of the perpetrator, and it's not our guy," said Melissa Montle, staff attorney for the Innocence Project of Florida. "It's really, really good news."

Williams' attorneys will file motions today to vacate his kidnapping and rape convictions and life prison sentence. The new lab results sent to prosecutors Monday exclude Williams from being a contributor to a mixture of DNA found on the inside of the gray shirt's collar -- where skin and sweat from the wearer would collect.

Twelve people in Florida -- and 255 nationwide -- have been exonerated based on DNA evidence, which has advanced to allow testing on hair and even degraded substances since Williams went to prison, said Seth Miller, the Innocence Project executive director.

"We had another case just like this in Brevard County, and that gentleman was exonerated after 27 years in prison," Miller said. "We think we should have the same result here."

The Innocence Project called on prosecutors to immediately agree to release Williams. But a local prosecutor said the new evidence does not prove Williams' innocence, and said the state will ask for a hearing before a judge to discuss it.

Williams was informed of the results in prison and, according to the Innocence Project, said: "It makes me extremely happy that it's finally coming to an end. The results prove what I have said all along -- I am innocent."

Police accused Williams, now 47, of abducting the 25-year-old woman from her Palmetto home, forcing her into her car and driving her to an orange grove to rape her.

Williams testified on his own behalf at trial. Relatives told the jury he was eating chicken and drinking beer with them at a family barbecue at the time of the attack.

Labs create a profile from a suspect's DNA by using 13 locations on the DNA that are known to vary from person to person. It is then compared to a profile of DNA taken from evidence. Any difference in any one of the locations means there is no match and the suspect therefore could not have left the DNA.

At the time of his arrest, Williams offered to give blood and saliva samples. But there was no sperm found to compare the genetic material, and DNA techniques used to find samples on evidence were not known then.

That meant the case was largely based on the victim's identification of Williams, but her description of her assailant differed from Williams and her story had several inconsistencies. Misidentification is often the cause of wrongful convictions that are later overturned by DNA evidence, the Innocence Project said.

Law enforcement prepared a photo line-up that included two pictures of Williams -- which is inherently suggestive -- and the victim said she was 80 percent sure Williams was her attacker, the Innocence Project says.

The victim did a live line-up later and said she was sure it was Williams. Her best opportunity to see her attacker was with her car window cracked with the man on the porch 20 feet away -- she said he had her in a headlock or with the shirt on her head the rest of the time, the Innocence Project said.

The victim said her attacker was 5-foot-6 to 5-foot-8 with a scar on his gut, whereas Williams is 5-11 with a scar on his back. She changed her testimony at trial to say the scar was on her attacker's back, even though she had told investigators she never saw her attacker's back.

The state also contended the shirt belonged to Williams even though the Florida Department of Law Enforcement had used a microscope to determine a hair extracted from the shirt could not have been Williams', the Innocence Project says.

The Innocence Project sought to test that hair and other evidence in Williams' case, such as the car's floor mats, the rape kit and the victim's clothing during the rape.

But those items were destroyed by the Manatee County Sheriff's office after a 2003 water leak in an evidence storage facility, along with evidence in about 3,600 other criminal cases.

Miller said there was a good chance they would have been able to find DNA evidence to test on those other items to help further show Williams' innocence.

That is important because if the conviction and sentence are vacated, the next step procedurally is a retrial. Prosecutors would not have much of the evidence from the case since it was destroyed.

At the time of his conviction, Williams was already a felon, and had been accused and acquitted of a rape years earlier.

A woman said two men abducted her car from the parking lot of a north Manatee County convenience store in 1980, drove her to an orange grove and raped her.

In that case, the woman identified Williams and another man as her attackers; the other man was in jail at the time of the rape and Williams' relatives said he was home sleeping at the time.

Monday, July 26, 2010

New DNA Test Results Prove Derrick Williams’ Innocence

Innocence Project of Florida, Inc.

1100 East Park Avenue, Tallahassee, FL 32301

Telephone 850.561.6767 Fax 850.561.5077

For Immediate Release PRESS Advisory

July 26, 2010


Seth Miller, Esq.: 202.341.2127

Melissa Montle, Esq.: 561.843.9304

New Wrongful Conviction Press Conference in Bradenton, FL
New DNA Test Results Prove Derrick Williams’ Innocence

This Tuesday, July 27, 2010, Derrick Williams’ attorneys from the Innocence Project of Florida will hold a press conference to release new DNA test results that demonstrate Mr. Williams’ innocence of a 1993 Palmetto, Manatee County, Florida kidnapping and rape.

Attorneys from the Innocence Project of Florida will discuss the results and take press questions regarding the case at this press conference. Members of Mr. Williams’ family will also be available for comment at this time. Florida’s most recent DNA exonoree, James Bain, will be in attendance to show support for Mr. Williams and his family. Bain’s 35 years of wrongful incarceration is the longest time served by any of the 255 DNA exonorees nationwide.

The press conference will be held at 10:30 a.m. on the west side of the new Manatee County Courthouse (in the courtyard between the old and new courthouses), 1051 Manatee Avenue West, Bradenton, FL.

The Innocence Project of Florida (IPF) is a 501(c)(3) organization dedicated to finding and freeing innocent people in Florida prisons. IPF represents Derrick Williams for free, including all costs associated with DNA testing and litigation. IPF’s website is

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Aging killer may get reprieve from death row

July 21, 2010



Prosecutors won't seek to send convicted killer George Porter, 78 years old and ailing, back to death row.

"Because of his age, if we were to seek and obtain it, it would never be executed," said Christopher White, chief of operations for the Brevard-Seminole State Attorney's Office. "It is not practical."

The appeals process for death sentences may take decades. In prison since 1988, Porter likely will be sentenced to a third life term in August.

Porter was found guilty of two charges of first-degree murder in the death of his former girlfriend, Evelyn Williams, and her boyfriend, Walter Burrows, in Melbourne. He was sentenced to death in the Williams homicide and two life terms for Burrows' death and the related armed burglary.

The state attorney's office's decision comes after the United States Supreme Court in November overturned Porter's death sentence, citing his record as an infantryman in Korea and emotional trauma he suffered.

The court's decision reversed a federal appeals court and a ruling by the Florida Supreme Court.

"Our nation has a long tradition of according leniency to veterans in recognition of their service, especially for those who fought on the front lines as Porter did," according to the Supreme Court ruling.

The court said Porter had ineffective

"Although the burden is on the petitioner to show he was prejudiced by his counsel's deficiency, the Florida Supreme Court's conclusion that Porter failed to meet his burden was an unreasonable application of our clearly established law," according to the ruling.

Combat stress

According to a report in the Los Angeles Times, the November ruling was the first time the Supreme Court ruled combat stress be among factors juries should consider in capital offenses, meaning any criminal charge punishable by death.

The court cited the intense trauma Porter suffered in Korea, including "fierce" hand-to-hand fighting with the Chinese.

The U.S. Supreme Court said Porter's attorney didn't thoroughly investigate his client's background.

"Although Porter had initially elected to represent himself, his standby counsel became his counsel for the penalty phase a little over a month prior to the sentencing proceeding before the jury," according to court papers. "It was the first time this lawyer had represented a defendant during a penalty-phase proceeding.

"At the post-conviction hearing, he testified that he had only one short meeting with Porter regarding the penalty phase."

Abused child

According to court documents, Porter had a violent father who once shot at him for being late and beat him regularly.

"According to his brother, Porter attended classes for slow learners and left school when he was 12 or 13," the Supreme Court document said.

Porter joined the Army at 17 and took part in the Korean conflict. He won two Purple Hearts and a combat infantryman badge.

More than three decades later, in July 1986, Porter threatened to kill Williams when their relationship was coming to an end, records said. He then left the state.

Back in Florida by October, Porter tried to contact Williams, but her mother said the ex-girlfriend did not want to meet him. He spent the night before the killings drinking at cocktail lounges.

"Early the next morning, Porter shot Williams in her house," the document states. "Burrows struggled with Porter and forced him outside where Porter shot him."

Contact Basu at 242-3724 or

Additional Facts

Judge Lucy Chernow Brown spared the life of Loureiro

Two Florida businessmen indicted in prison kickback case

By Lucy Morgan, Times Senior Correspondent
In Print: Friday, July 16, 2010

Former Florida Corrections Secretary James V. Crosby Jr. and Allen W. Clark, a regional manager for the prison system, collected more than $130,000 in kickbacks and gifts from two North Florida businessmen, according to a federal indictment released Thursday.

The two North Florida businessmen — Edward Lee Dugger, 63, of Gainesville and Joseph A. Deese, 37, of Fort White — were charged with paying the bribes so they could get into a business relationship with Keefe Commissary, a company that services grocery-style canteens at all state prisons. The two men own American Institutional Services, also known as AIS.

The prison canteen business is a lucrative, predominantly cash business that caters to inmates and their visitors.

Crosby and Clark went to federal prison three years ago after promising to cooperate with federal prosecutors investigating the bribes. The followup investigation was repeatedly delayed after several federal prosecutors in Florida's Middle District left for other jobs.

Dugger and Deese turned themselves in Thursday morning in Jacksonville and were released on $50,000 bond each. Dugger faces a maximum sentence of 25 years and Deese could be sentenced to five years. Federal prosecutors are also seeking forfeiture of more than $2.4 million, the amount they allegedly profited from the scheme.

The federal indictment accuses Dugger and Deese of making cash payments to Crosby and Clark ranging from $1,000 to $12,000 a month and also providing them with various gifts of food and alcohol during business conferences. The two businessmen also made payments to Keefe Commissary executives to obtain higher commissions, the indictment alleges.

The allegedly illegal payments continued until early 2006 when Crosby and Clark resigned in the midst of a public corruption investigation that also led to criminal charges against more than two dozen other prison employees. The charges included illegal steroid use, creating a phantom job for a prison softball team player, taking prison equipment and obtaining illegal services from inmates.

Crosby, 57, was a former mayor and city commissioner in Starke who began work as a prison guard in 1975. He became a political player on the state stage, raising money and support for Gov. Jeb Bush, who appointed him to the prison system's top job. Crosby remains behind bars at a federal prison near Pensacola. He is scheduled for release in 2014 but could earn a reduction in his sentence by testifying against Dugger and Deese.

Clark, 43, was a close friend and protege of Crosby's who was also a career employee of the prison system. Clark has been released from prison.

Both men were forced to forfeit their state pensions.

Steve Andrews, the Tallahassee lawyer who represents Crosby, refused to comment on the new indictments. Steve Dobson, the lawyer who represented Clark, also refused to comment.

Friday, July 9, 2010

New murder trial ordered over Miranda violation in 2005 Arlington shooting

A convicted killer won a new trial Wednesday when an appeals court ruled Jacksonville police continued to question him after he asked for a lawyer.

A unanimous three-judge panel of the 1st District Court of Appeal cited a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling clarifying the court's landmark Miranda ruling that requires police to tell criminal suspects about their rights to remain silent and to an attorney.

Isaac Wilder, 33, has been serving a mandatory life sentence after his conviction for first-degree murder and attempted second-degree murder in an October 2005 shooting inside a car on University Boulevard North. The shooting killed Laserrio Nashief Lang, 22, and injured Keonna Diamond, 21, who played dead and then drove the vehicle to a nearby McDonald's to call for help.

Wilder was in jail on other charges when police detectives asked him about the shooting a month later. He told them, "I would rather not even talk unless I had an attorney present," and detectives stopped questioning him, according to a partial transcript quoted in Wednesday's ruling.

Later that night, he was returned to the interrogation room to talk with his brother, and detectives re-read the Miranda warning.

According to Wednesday's order, Wilder was assured police didn't want to re-question him and the warning was a formality.

But a few days later, a detective questioned him again without re-reading his rights, and Wilder made the incriminating statements prosecutors used in his 2008 murder trial, according to Wednesday's order. Circuit Judge Linda McCallum rejected a defense motion to exclude the statements.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruling says once a defendant asks for a lawyer, that right isn't waived by responding to further police interrogation, even if the Miranda warning is read again. The state appeals court said the ruling mandates reversal in a case like Wilder's.

"He unambiguously communicated his desire that questioning without a lawyer cease. That is precisely ... why the detective ended the interrogation," the state court wrote. Because Wilder didn't initiate the subsequent contact, his incriminating statements were inadmissible, the court said., (904) 359-4107

Death sentence upheld in gruesome South Beach murder


The Florida Supreme Court on Thursday upheld the death sentence for a South Beach man convicted of strangling a Southridge High senior, then dismembering her body and flushing her flesh down the toilet.

Michael D. Seibert, 42, was convicted of the March 1998 murder of Karolay Adrianza after a night of beer drinking and cocaine snorting in the man's South Beach apartment.

In his appeal, Seibert argued that he had ineffective lawyers and that Florida's execution by lethal injection is unconstitutional. Justices denied all the claims.

Miami-Dade jurors convicted Seibert in 2002, and later recommended execution by a vote of 9-3.

The brutal murder case shocked South Florida, especially because Seibert had earlier been convicted of kidnapping and bludgeoning a British tourist, but served only 10 years of a 30-year prison sentence.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Fla. high court OKs Brevard killer's execution

The state's highest court upheld an earlier ruling by a lower court denying 28-year-old Randy Schoenwetter's appeal to overturn his murder conviction in the deaths of one-time neighbor Ronald Friskey and Friskey's 10-year-old daughter, Virginia, in August 2000.

Randy Schoenwetter is on Death Row for the slayings of Ronald Friskey and his 10-year-old daughter, Virginia, in 2000.

The Florida Supreme Court Thursday cleared the way for the state to execute convicted murderer Randy Schoenwetter in the next few years.

The state's highest court upheld an earlier ruling by a lower court denying 28-year-old Schoenwetter's appeal to overturn his murder conviction in the deaths of one-time neighbor Ronald Friskey and Friskey's 10-year-old daughter, Virginia, in August 2000.

Schoenwetter based his appeal on several issues, including the position that his lawyers should have objected to statements when he entered a guilty plea in the case.

But the Florida Supreme Court affirmed the plea, saying: "The record demonstrates that appellant (Schoenwetter) was not attempting to negotiate a plea deal, but rather to confess his guilt to the court and enter a plea of guilty," according to the 55-page ruling.

The court also ruled that his attorney's handling of evidence related to Schoenwetter's penchant for child pornography, pedophilia and Satanism "was not deficient."

Brevard County Assistant State Attorney Wayne Holmes said Schoenwetter's case was moving relatively quickly through the death-row appeal process.

"It's realistic that we could have a death warrant in the next two to three years," Holmes said.

Schoenwetter, once the youngest person on death row, now can take his appeal to federal court.

Schoenwetter, 28, pleaded guilty to the killings, but during the penalty phase, his attorneys argued his life should be spared because he suffers from a form of autism.

In early-morning Aug. 12, 2000, Schoenwetter said he broke into the Friskey residence to force one or both daughters to have sex. He was in their bedroom, when Ronald Friskey and his wife ran into the room and found Schoenwetter.

A struggle followed, an Schoenwetter stabbed Friskey and his 10-year-old daughter to death. His wife and 16-year-old daughter survived.

"If you're going to have a death penalty, then this is the kind of case it's for," Holmes said.

Of the 14 people from Brevard who sat on death row in the past five years, four have been granted new trials or had their sentences sent back for reconsideration, one died of natural causes and one was executed.


Sunday, July 4, 2010

Florida Corrections Officers Charged in Drug Trafficking Scheme

Wifredo R. Ferrer, United States Attorney for the Southern District of Florida; John V. Gillies, Special Agent in Charge, Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), Miami Field Office; and Ric L. Bradshaw, Sheriff, Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office, announced today that a federal grand jury in West Palm Beach, Florida, has returned an indictment against three former corrections officers. The three individuals formerly worked as Corrections Officers for The Geo Group at Moore Haven Correctional Facility in Moore Haven, Glades County, under a contract with the state of Florida.

The federal indictment charged defendants Dameyenoe Francis, Jerry Thicklin, and Derrick Jackson, with one count of conspiracy to possess cocaine with intent to distribute, in violation of Title 21, United States Code, Section 846. The Indictment also charges the same three individual defendants with a count of attempting to possess cocaine with intent to distribute it, in violation of Title 21, United States Code, Section 841(a)(1). They face a mandatory minimum of 10 years in federal prison on each count, up to a $4,000,000 fine and lifetime supervised release. The investigation involved sham cocaine, and no actual cocaine was smuggled inside of Moore Haven Correctional.

During the investigation, FBI undercover agents represented to the defendants that they were members of a purported drug trafficking group, interested in having the defendants protect and facilitate the undercover agents’ drug trafficking operation in exchange for cash payments. The undercover officers as purported drug traffickers, and paid each of the defendants to carry multi-kilogram quantities of purported cocaine from Miami to West Palm Beach in exchange for cash payments of $5,000.

Mr. Ferrer commended the investigative efforts of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office. Mr. Ferrer also noted with appreciation the cooperation of the Florida Department of Corrections during this investigation. The case is being prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorneys Stephen Carlton and Julia Paylor.

An Indictment is merely an accusation and a defendant is presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty.

A copy of this press release may be found on the website of the United States Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Florida at Related court documents and information may be found on the website of the United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida at or

Friday, July 2, 2010

Some lethal injection challenges get OK

Associated Press - July 1, 2010

TALLAHASSEE — A sharply divided Florida Supreme Court has agreed to let state lawyers for death row inmates challenge lethal injection in federal courts.

The 4-3 ruling Thursday reversed a prior high court ruling that prohibited what are known as capital collateral regional counsels from filing federal civil rights suits to contest the constitutionality of Florida’s execution method.

In the same opinion, though, the justices unanimously rejected Dolan Darling’s constitutional attack on lethal injection and upheld his death sentence.

Darling, an escapee from a Bahamian jail, was convicted of raping and fatally shooting Grazyna Mlynarczyk, an illegal immigrant from Poland, at her Orlando apartment in 1996.

Polk jail to record inmate-lawyer calls starting July 1

Published: June 23, 2010

BARTOW - Polk County jail officials plan to start recording calls between inmates and their lawyers starting July 1.

The jail has been routinely recording inmate telephone calls, but calls to attorneys have been exempt.

Sheriff Grady Judd said the Florida Supreme Court recently ruled that jail officials can record client-attorney phone calls. Judd said tapes of those conversations could be used in court.

: "We're allowed to record these conversations, and why wouldn't we record the conversations in order to make the best prosecutable case to protect the victims and prosecute the criminal defendants. Why wouldn't we do that," the sheriff said.

J. Marion Moorman, the public defender for the 10th Judicial Circuit, which includes Polk, said his lawyers will stop accepting calls from their inmate clients.

"The client may be calling for the most innocuous information, you know what time is my next court hearing, and then starts to blurt out the most incriminating sorts of things, and we have no control over that of course," Moorman said.

The sheriff said attorneys can still have confidential conversations with inmates via video conferencing or in face-to-face meetings.

"We're not telling them you can't have unfettered access to your clients. You can, and it's really simple. Come to the jail 24/7," Judd said.

But Moorman said that will cost more taxpayer money for attorneys from his publically funded office to travel to the jail. Moorman said the sheriff "does not have to do this. He has chosen to do this for reasons of his own."

Judd counters that he surveyed a few dozen inmates and they preferred personal meetings with their attorneys.

"Do you know what they had to say? 'This is great. Now we can see our lawyer before we show up in court on court day," he said.

Fla. Innocence Commission moves closer to reality

The commission would study possible causes of wrongful convictions

Published: Thursday, July 1, 2010 at 6:30 a.m.

Ask those closely involved in efforts to establish a state commission that would study the possible causes of wrongful convictions and listen carefully for a hint of doubt.

Such tones are noticeably absent in present-day dialogue centered on hopes for a Florida Actual Innocence Commission, which up until two months ago existed merely as a proposal.

But with $200,000 in state appropriations now bolstering its launch, proponents say they're optimistic the Florida Supreme Court will take the next official step of issuing an administrative order formally establishing such a commission, which is expected to closely model one formalized in North Carolina by court order in 2005.

This hope is palpable even as the state's high court ushers in a new chief justice today. Charles T. Canady takes over chief administrative duties from Peggy A. Quince, whose two-year term in that role has come to a end.

"I have a sense it (the commission) is very high on his agenda. I'm not worried about it falling through the cracks," said attorney and former American Bar Association president Talbot "Sandy" D'Alemberte.

Last December, D'Alemberte petitioned the court to adopt a rule setting up an Innocence Commission. It would investigate cases of wrongful convictions in the state - a dozen of which currently have been identified - and develop recommendations for reform to prevent future scenarios.

The leading cause for such errors, the former Florida State University president said, is eyewitness misidentification, followed by reliance on jailhouse informants and "junk science" tactics like tracking dogs.

The commission, as currently proposed, would not examine those cases where wrongful conviction is possible, but already established through DNA evidence or otherwise. It also would not be restricted only in examining capital cases, but any instance resulting in an innocent person's incarceration.

Its engagement in a type of post-mortem would help establish "where the system failed, to what extent it was pilot error, and from a lessons-learned perspective, to apply that to future cases," said Mark Schlakman, chairman of the Tallahassee-based Innocence Project of Florida.

In the entire country, there have been 255 post-conviction DNA exonerations, according to a New York-based non-profit legal clinic, The Innocence Project.

In March, Quince declined D'Alemberte's petition, but not for disinterest in the proposal. "The idea of such a program always has been an excellent one, but I am afraid that many people did not understand that the Supreme Court lacked the funding," she wrote in an e-mail Wednesday.

The idea has now become a tangible reality, given the $200,000 seed money allowing at least one year of operation. The funds were secured by incoming Florida Senate President Mike Haridopolos, a Republican from Melbourne, who also was pivotal in pushing through a bill a couple years ago reimbursing individuals wrongfully convicted $50,000 for each year of incarceration.

"I believe firmly in the equal scales of justice. If we made a mistake, we need to recognize that," the 40-year-old lawmaker said in a telephone interview Wednesday. "You can't imagine going to bed, waking up and continuing to live a nightmare."

Such bipartisan support for an Innocence Commission has given renewed hope to justice advocates who claim it is in the interest of every Florida taxpayer to be behind such a task force, when "just one wrongful conviction can result in Florida taxpayers being responsible for millions of dollars," as Schlakman puts it.

"These issues transcend partisan politics; they must," he said.

But the idea that the criminal justice system needs fixing or somehow has failed, hence the need for such a commission, is a prickly topic for people like Eighth Circuit State Attorney Bill Cervone, president of the Florida Prosecuting Attorneys Association.

"We do not live in a perfect world. The entire court system is designed to find truth through judges, juries and multiple levels of appeals," he said. "Beyond question, the system generally works. There will be, by human nature, errors and we do our very best to correct them, to ferret them out."

Those views aside, Cervone said the application of state funds for an Innocence Commission is questionable given recent lean budget years. By his estimate, the same dollar amount could be used to fund four additional entry-level assistant state prosecutors or public defenders in resources-strapped offices around the state.

On top of the $200,000, The Florida Bar Foundation has pledged a supplemental grant of approximately $100,000 to support the effort.

So far, the Florida Supreme Court has already advertised key positions for the commission, including the roles of executive director and assistant to the executive director. Communication between the most recent chief justice and the current chief justice is ongoing.

"This whole process has been proceeding pretty smoothly," said court spokesman Craig Waters. "Justice Quince has been talking regularly with Chief Justice Canady."

Quince, who cites as her most lasting legacy as chief justice the creation of a new state courts trust fund to pay for the operations of the state judiciary, indicated in her e-mail that she hopes the Legislature will be able to help continue funding an Innocence Commission in future years.

That's a sentiment shared by Schlakman. "Until there is a credible comprehensive review, we will be dealing with these cases, hit or miss, on an ad hoc basis and candidly, that's completely unacceptable," he said.

Contact Suevon Lee at 867-4065 or