The commission would study possible causes of wrongful convictions
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.