Thanks to the efforts of state Sen. Mike Haridopolos, $200,000 has been included in the Senate's proposed state budget to create an "innocence commission" that would examine the causes of wrongful conviction. Haridopolos, a Melbourne Republican poised to become the next Senate president, has been a leader on this issue and has sponsored claims bills to compensate people found innocent of their crimes after spending years behind bars. If money for an innocence commission can survive budget negotiations with the House, Florida should soon have a mechanism to examine the failures in its criminal justice system that have resulted in so many innocent people going to prison.
In recent years, largely due to DNA evidence, at least 11 cases have been documented of Floridians who were convicted of crimes they did not commit. St. Petersburg's Alan Crotzer spent 24 years in prison for a sexual assault, kidnapping and robbery that was someone else's crime. He lost a veritable lifetime of liberty, but Crotzer's story is also a tragedy for Florida's system of criminal justice, full of police and prosecutors getting it wrong.
An innocence commission would investigate cases of actual innocence in the same way that the National Transportation Safety Board dissects plane crashes; explore how situations like Crotzer's occur; and examine what can be done to prevent them.
Other states already do this. North Carolina's commission, which has been active for a number of years, has offered a host of recommendations on ways to wring mistakes out of the system, suggesting solutions to problems of mistaken eyewitness identification, the mishandling of evidence and false confessions.
Sometimes positive change is as easy to implement as altering the way police do photo line-ups so that administrators don't know the identity of the suspect and inadvertently influence witnesses.
Florida is on the cusp of having its own innocence commission because a number of influential Floridians from both political parties pushed for it to happen. Talbot "Sandy" D'Alemberte, former president of Florida State University, organized dozens of high-profile Florida attorneys to petition the Florida Supreme Court for a rule establishing a commission. Haridopolos sent a separate letter to the high court supporting the idea and suggesting that state workers could assist the commission's work. And the Florida Bar's Board of Governors voted unanimously to endorse a commission.
Ultimately that petition to the court was denied, but Chief Justice Peggy Quince said last month that the court was interested in establishing an innocence commission by administrative order rather than through its rulemaking authority. The funding coming from the Legislature, if it survives, would make it possible for the court to follow through.