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Florida Innocence Commission draws up agenda for reducing wrongful convictions

TALLAHASSEE — One by one, the names of 11 men wrongfully convicted flashed on a large screen.

James Bain, 55, watched a room full of judges, lawyers and cops study his case in sobering silence.

The Tampa resident spent 35 years in prison for rape before being exonerated with DNA testing nearly a year ago.

"I thought I'd walk right out of (the trial) because I knew they had the wrong person," Bain recalled.

His struggle for justice — complicated by a poor defense lawyer and handwritten appeals — served as a call to action for the Florida Innocence Commission at its first meeting Friday.

"We can recognize that the perfection of justice will always remain an elusive goal," said Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Charles Canaday, who helped launch the group. "But that reality can never be an excuse for relaxing our efforts to protect the innocent."

The 23-member commission, led by 9th Circuit Chief Judge Bevin Perry Jr., is studying the 11 Florida exonerations to make recommendations on how to prevent wrongful convictions.

A national study of 225 people exonerated through DNA testing conducted by the Innocence Project, an advocacy organization for defendants, helped set the parameters for the commission.

The main factor contributing to false convictions is faulty identifications by eyewitnesses, the study showed. It occurs in more than three-quarters of exonerations.

The other main problems: invalid forensic evidence, false confessions and bad informants.

The panel will address each element at upcoming meetings throughout the state as it prepares a final report, which is due June 2012.

"You see something like that, you have to take a step back," said 18th Judicial Circuit Chief Judge J. Preston Silvernail.

But solutions won't come easy.

Other states with similar commissions have spent six months to a year on the problem of eyewitnesses alone.

The Florida group started slowly, spending the first hour in the four-hour meeting debating the wording of its mission statement.

And later the commission deleted a reference in the bylaws to the cases of the 11 exonerated men because members didn't want to declare them innocent without reviewing the cases. "Are they innocent or was there just not sufficient evidence" to convict them again, asked Brad King, the state attorney for the 5th Judicial Circuit.

The slow progress frustrated Alan Crotzer, a former St. Petersburg resident, who was freed in 2006 after 241/2 years behind bars for a rape, kidnapping and robbery he didn't commit.

"Please don't let this become a paralyzed system of analysts," he told the commission. "Make it happen. Make it better. Fix it. You have that power now."

John Frank can be reached at jfrank@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

Florida Innocence Commission draws up agenda for reducing wrongful convictions 09/10/10 [Last modified: Friday, September 10, 2010 8:58pm]
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