For innocent convicts in Florida, legal project is a lifeline

Innocence Project of Florida executive director Seth Miller and lawyer Bobbi Madonna meet with associates on potential cases.

MARK WALLHEISER | Special to the Times

Innocence Project of Florida executive director Seth Miller and lawyer Bobbi Madonna meet with associates on potential cases.

TALLAHASSEE — The letters come, sometimes eight to 10 a day, filled with everything from indignation to outrage to humble pleas for help.

Amy Kochanasz, a 25-year-old graduate student, retrieves them from her mail slot in the laid-back law office where she works. She admires the flashy, graffitilike handwriting of some; thinks others would make good movie scripts; wonders about the ones who try to sound like lawyers.

"I believe that I am totally innocense, and it's further believed that I was set up," one convict wrote.

It's up to Kochanasz and others at the Innocence Project of Florida to figure out whether that's true.

The Innocence Project was founded in 1992 by New York defense lawyers Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld; it has since expanded into a network of more than 50 groups across the country. For years these lawyers specialized in using DNA evidence to exonerate people wrongly convicted of crimes from rape to murder. They have exonerated 237 people across the country, including 10 in Florida.

Lately the organization has branched out into cases involving bullet analysis, glass comparisons, palm prints and evidence-sniffing dogs. The National Academy of Sciences has cast doubt on these forensic tests, providing an opportunity for the Innocence Project and the inmates they represent.

The Florida office — a few rooms in an old wood-frame house — has four full-time lawyers, an investigator and a dozen students and interns who help with the cases. It is funded by grants and foundations.

Recently, the staff let a reporter inside to see how they choose their cases.

The process is a lot like sifting for gold. Of the 3,000 inmates who have asked for help since the office opened six years ago, 90 percent have received rejection letters. Rarely do the lawyers find someone like Wilton Dedge or Alan Crotzer, both wrongly convicted of rape.

Still, every letter gets a look. Each represents a person's last shot at freedom.

• • •

The four lawyers and three students gather in a bare room with mismatched chairs. Just about every one of them — even the lawyers — is wearing jeans.

On the table for review: the case summaries of eight men who say they are innocent.

These cases have already made it past Kochanasz and the other intake specialist, a lawyer who has gathered trial transcripts, court documents and lab reports, and made a recommendation. Now the cases are ready for a decision.

All of these men have been convicted and sentenced to decades and, in some cases, life in prison. But to the folks at the Innocence Project they are — once again — innocent until proven guilty.

They begin with an exterminator convicted of strangling an elderly woman with a dress in her bathtub. The only physical evidence against him: a partial palm print on the bathtub. It could have gotten there when he did his job. Forensic analysts created a full print from the partial one that supposedly matched his hand, but was it really his?

This will be their first palm print case if they take it. A step toward the unknown. But can they get the case thrown out with just that?

They're willing to give it a try.

"I like this case," executive director Seth Miller says. "I'd like to know if they have the print available to look at and a good explanation of what they did to it."

They move on to a pair of rapists. The cases seemed promising when they came in. But the staff turned up lab reports showing that the male DNA found on the raped women belongs to the convicts. These men will get rejection letters: "We're sorry we can't assist you further. We wish you the best of luck in your efforts."

Next: a guy convicted of shooting a restaurant manager making a bank deposit. A witness produced a box of bullets that supposedly belonged to the shooter. And the FBI said the lead from the bullets in the box matched the lead in the bullet that was fired in the crime.

They'll take this one for sure.

The FBI first used comparative bullet lead analysis in the Kennedy assassination, and over the years it became common practice. But in 2004, the National Academy of Sciences said linking a bullet to a specific box of bullets is a dubious business. A year later, the FBI stopped using the process and is informing prosecutors around the country of their about-face.

The Innocence Project knows of about 20 people in Florida who were convicted at least partly on comparative bullet lead analysis; several have become clients. One, Jimmy Ates, a Baker County high school teacher convicted of killing his wife in 1998, won a new trial recently, the first in the nation to do so.

"The next one," said lawyer Kitty Farias, flipping a page, "is a sad and strange tale."

This man has been in prison since 1995 for trying to rape a woman in a ditch behind a convenience store. The only physical evidence against him is a cap that resembled one he was wearing. It turned up a few feet away in the wet ditch. And someone saw him with wet pants soon after the crime.

Farias says she has tried to find the hat so she can have its brim tested for his DNA.

"But everything in this was destroyed," she says glumly. The evidence is gone.

Miller pipes up. "One point of caution," he says. He tells Farias not to reject this case until she makes sure the evidence was really destroyed.

"Ask for proof," he says.

Sometimes, as Miller knows through experience, evidence that appears to have been lost still exists.

• • •

On a recent Tuesday afternoon, Alan Crotzer stops by the offices of the Innocence Project of Florida carrying a McDonald's lunch. He makes the rounds with the lawyers, the intake clerks, the college students who are working up more Alan Crotzers on their computers.

He's a regular here, and a living example of what innocence lawyers can do.

Crotzer, 48, was accused, with two other men, of raping a woman and her 12-year-old daughter in Tampa in 1981. For years he insisted he was innocent, but by the time the Innocence Project looked into his case, all of the evidence seemed to have been destroyed.

Then one of his lawyers from New York located an old filing cabinet in the basement of a Florida Department of Law Enforcement lab in Tampa.

Inside: DNA slides from his case.

Crotzer was exonerated with a DNA test three years ago and now works for the Department of Juvenile Justice in Tallahassee.

He stops by the Innocence Project from time to time, to say hello and offer encouragement.

"I want to give hope and pride," he says, "to those involved in this."

Times researchers Will Gorham and Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report. Leonora LaPeter Anton can be reached at lapeter@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8640.

For innocent convicts in Florida, legal project is a lifeline 04/26/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 28, 2009 12:59pm]

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