Stetson law students work on Innocence Project of Florida

GULFPORT

They sit in prison convicted of a crime they say they never committed. They were dealt a bad hand by the Florida justice system, they say.

Now, some key people are listening. A group of Stetson University law students and the Innocence Project of Florida are teaming up to review about 10 cases in which those convicted claim they're innocent.

The collaboration marks the first time the nonprofit, Tallahassee organization has students working on cases remotely, said Seth Miller, executive director of the Innocence Project of Florida. In the past, the organization had students working in their office in the Florida capital.

Shujaat Khan is a second-year Stetson law student working on the new effort.

Lives are at stake, he said.

"You have to defend criminals to maintain a proper society," Khan said. "If you don't, the next people who will be negatively affected are innocent people."

The Innocence Project of Florida takes on clients who claim they have been wrongfully convicted and imprisoned for felonies including rape, burglary and assault. It does not take on death penalty cases because these are too specialized.

The partnership with Stetson University allows students to satisfy 30 hours of public service requirement for graduation, and it gives the organization a number of volunteers to help vet cases.

"This is the perfect project to teach them (students) how cases are put together and how the system sometimes fails and how we can help make up for the system's failure," said Judith Scully, a Stetson University professor and a former defense lawyer.

About 20 students have been paired with local criminal defense lawyers to work on the 10 cases, which are from all over the state including Pinellas, Broward and Escambia counties.

They mainly involve sexual crimes against adults and children and those convicted had served anywhere from one to 10 years so far. Their prison lengths ranged from seven years to life.

The 10 cases are from a caseload of 750 claims the organization, with a staff of eight, is looking into now, Miller said. Since its inception in 2003, the Innocence Project of Florida has reviewed more than 3,000 cases.

Not all are valid.

"We have stringent criteria, and usually we end up rejecting a lot of cases," Miller said. Part of the students' jobs is to review these claims to see whether they can be litigated.

That involves reading pages of court transcripts, combing through investigation reports and examining lists of evidence involved in a prisoner's conviction trial. It also means seeking out more paperwork if information is lacking.

Many of these cases do not necessarily involve DNA testing.

"We are not looking at DNA cases," Scully said. "Two of the primary reasons why people are falsely convicted are false confessions and eyewitness testimony. This is a nationwide problem."

About a dozen Tampa Bay area lawyers have been assigned to work with pairs of students, guiding their work and investigation.

The lawyers will be supervising the "legwork done by the law students, and making sure they're heading in the right direction and not overlooking any areas that need to be investigated," said Katherine Yanes, a Tampa-based defense attorney and Stetson alumna who volunteered to work with the students. "These are people's lives on the line."

Sometimes, students working with Innocence Projects are not spared controversy.

Recently, prosecutors in Chicago subpoenaed the class syllabus and grades of Northwestern University journalism students working under the university's Medill Innocence Project.

Prosecutors accused students of paying two witnesses for information while investigating the case of Anthony McKinney, a man serving a life sentence for the murder of a security guard in 1978. The matter came up this month during a hearing on McKinney's new trial.

Miller, of the Innocence Project of Florida, called the Chicago prosecutor's move a scare tactic. Those students are protected by reporter's shield laws and student privacy laws, he said.

Something like that would not happen to Stetson students because most of their investigation will be protected under attorney-client privilege, said Miller, who is also an attorney.

Most of the Stetson University students who volunteered will have their work cut out for them for the next couple of years.

An average post-conviction case can take up to three years or more to resolve, said Yanes, who primarily deals with such cases.

"We have a lot of work ahead of us," said Kelli Mitchell, one of the students volunteering on the project. She said of herself and her partner, Khan, "They put a lot of faith in us."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Innocence Project of Florida

Established in 2003, the Innocence Project of Florida has reviewed about 3,000 claims of innocence from those incarcerated for felonies such as murder, rape and burglary. The organization also lobbies state legislators on compensation for those exonerated from a wrongful conviction. Visit floridainnocence.org.

A local case the group worked on: In 1981, a Circuit Court sentenced Alan Crotzer, right, of St. Petersburg to 130 years in prison after three men burglarized a Tampa home and kidnapped and raped two of the five victims: a 38-year-old woman and a 12-year-old girl. Eyewitness misidentification and faulty evidence testing led to Crotzer's conviction. In 2003, further DNA testing exonerated him, and his conviction was overturned in 2006. Another man has since confessed to committing the crime with his brother and childhood friend.

Source: The Innocence Project of Florida

Stetson law students work on Innocence Project of Florida 11/14/09 [Last modified: Friday, November 13, 2009 6:10pm]

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