Getting to the bottom of justice system failures

It is said that it's better for 10 guilty men to go free than for one innocent man to be wrongfully convicted, but in Florida alone there have been at least 21 cases, most of them in the last 10 years, that have ended in exonerations.

Why?

If an airplane crashes, we want to know why. If nine men have been wrongly sentenced to death in Florida, we should want to know why. If 12 men have been sentenced to long prison terms, spending on average 15 years each in prison before their innocence was established, we should want to know why.

When scholars, researchers and other professionals started looking into these cases, we found mistaken eyewitness identifications, police and crime lab misconduct, prosecutors concealing exculpatory evidence, and judges allowing questionable "experts" to testify in court. We also find that these miscarriages of justice are not just happening in one place; the cases come from a wide range of counties in Florida, from the Panhandle to the Everglades.

In the proposed budget coming before Gov. Charlie Crist, the Legislature appropriated $200,000 for the creation of an Innocence Commission to determine how innocent people are wrongly convicted and to propose policy changes to help prevent future errors in the administration of justice.

In one example of an error in a case in West Palm Beach, employees of a bar that had been robbed told police the gunman was a white male, with short black hair and a tattoo on his neck in Chinese characters. When the police put together a photo lineup and asked two witnesses to identify the gunman, only one person in the lineup had a tattoo on his neck. That man, Cody Davis, was convicted and sentenced to three years in prison, but was released when DNA testing proved another man committed the crime — a man already in jail on unrelated charges who had a tattoo on his neck that said "no fear" in Chinese.

In Duval County, Chad Heins was wrongfully convicted of murdering his sister-in-law, even though investigators found no physical or biological evidence linking him to the crime. No scratches or scrapes were found on his body, no blood on his clothes, nothing under his fingernails, and no murder weapon was found. It was revealed years later that the prosecutor failed to turn over evidence at trial — a single, bloody fingerprint that was found at the scene of the crime that did not match Heins', the victim's, or the victim's husband's prints.

Wilton Dedge, William Dillion and Juan Ramos were convicted in Brevard County based on the faulty testimony of John Preston, a supposed scent-tracking expert with a dog. Ramos was wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death for a 1982 murder after two scent lineups were conducted by the police department. The only people present at the lineups were the police chief, a police detective, a sergeant from the sheriff's office and the dog handler. The victim's shirt was the only one in the lineup that had been worn by a female and the knife found in the victim was the only knife with blood on it in the lineup.

In 1984, in Brevard County, Preston's dog failed a court-ordered test to track a scent and Preston left town rather than face a retest. He has been discredited by forensic scientists, experts in the scent tracking field, media reports and multiple state Supreme Court decisions.

Wrongful convictions are an indicator of something profoundly wrong in society, and it's incumbent on free people to figure out how and why.

When a crime is "solved" through the conviction of an innocent person, it means that a guilty person is still free, on the streets, potentially a continuing danger. It also means that we are spending a lot of money to keep an innocent person in prison without enhancing public safety in any way. A society that permits such punishment of the innocent falls short of the standards of fairness and justice we expect in a modern democracy.

In February, the Board of Governors of the Florida Bar unanimously approved a petition to the Supreme Court of Florida to create an Innocence Commission. The court has indicated that it would like to create such a commission, but only if funds are appropriated by the Legislature. The Senate has set aside the money — now it's up to us to encourage the governor to make sure it becomes law.

Life-destroying failures in the justice system are the moral and legal equivalent of a plane crash. It's not too soon to have this commission get started on this important work.

Chelsea Enright is an undergraduate honors student in criminology and sociology at Florida State University.

Getting to the bottom of justice system failures 05/23/10 [Last modified: Sunday, May 23, 2010 5:30am]

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