Funding an issue in Fla. wrongful convictions
Besides the usual suspects, such as mistaken eyewitness identification and faulty scientific evidence, Florida's Innocence Commission says inadequate criminal justice funding is a leading factor in the wrongful conviction of innocent people.
The panel of judges, lawyers and law enforcement officials urged the Legislature to appropriate more money for courts, prosecutors, public defenders and crime laboratories. That recommendation came in a 171-page final report filed Thursday with the Florida Supreme Court.
Chief Justice Charles Canady created the 23-member panel two years ago in response growing evidence of mistakes in the criminal justice system, including the exoneration of 13 Florida convicts as a result of DNA testing.
"It seems to me they have done a very good job of laying out a sensible agenda," said Florida State University President Emeritus Talbot "Sandy" D'Alemberte, who had filed a petition on behalf of 68 lawyers that asked the high court to create the commission.
D'Alemberte, also a former American Bar Association president and ex-legislator who still teaches law at Florida State, said he was pleasantly surprised with the focus on funding. It wasn't something he had identified "as a grand theme" when asking for the commission, D'Alemberte said.
The panel, chaired by Chief Circuit Judge Belvin Perry Jr. of Orlando, initially zeroed in on mistaken eyewitness identifications, false confessions, informants including jailhouse snitches, invalid or improper scientific evidence and the professional responsibility of lawyers and judges.
But the report said it soon became clear insufficient funding, including budget cuts in recent years, is a key factor. That's resulted in excessive caseloads and the inability to hire, train and retain enough experienced prosecutors, public defender lawyers and laboratory technicians.
"If one is serious about doing something about wrongful convictions we must recognize that a lack of funding is the most serious threat that implicates the state attorneys, public defenders, the attorney general, criminal conflict counsel and the judiciary," said Commissioner Alex Acosta, law school dean at Florida International University in Miami.
"All of the other recommendations of the commission are secondary," Acosta added. "More funding is fundamental to our rights and the system of law."
Besides overall criminal justice spending, the report proposed several specific funding recommendations. They include student loans so career lawyers working for state attorneys, public defenders and the attorney general can enhance their legal educations.
It also proposed a change in state law so court-appointed private defense lawyers could be paid according to the seriousness of charges against their clients instead of on a flat-fee basis.
The panel's recommendations related to scientific evidence include more funding for staffing, training and equipping state crime laboratories, including pay raises, in part to increase DNA testing and expand the state's DNA database. The report includes specific crime lab funding items totaling nearly $4.4 million.
The commission also urged that crime scene technicians be certified through written examinations with additional periodic testing to retain their certification.
Some of the other recommendations are for the adoption of jury instructions on how to treat testimony from jailhouse snitches and other informants, passage of a law that would require electronic recording of suspects' statements while in custody and the identification of prosecutors and defense lawyers whose misconduct results in the reversal of convictions.
In addition, the panel called for educating judges on the admissibility of expert testimony, online training for all government attorneys practicing criminal law and requiring that lawyers handling felony cases take at least a two-hour course on issues specific to those cases.
"This is only the first step in reform," said Seth Miller, executive director of the Innocence Project of Florida, which works to free wrongly convicted inmates.
Miller said it's now up to the Legislature, Supreme Court and other criminal justice agencies to decide whether to follow the recommendations, but D'Alemberte said the panel already has had an effect.
"Just the existence of the commission has brought some things to light," D'Alemberte said.
Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.