Only one person benefits from a wrongful conviction - the one who actually committed the crime. Nobody else wins - not the victim or their family, not law enforcement or the courts and certainly not whoever took the rap. That's why a new effort by Hillsborough County State Attorney Andrew Warren serves such a broad public benefit. His new program to audit the credibility of criminal convictions advances the cause of justice.
Warren unveiled a new division, the Conviction Review Unit, this week, following through on a campaign pledge in 2016 to review past conviction cases. The move will help ensure that innocent people are not punished for crimes they didn't commit, and it follows the exoneration of thousands across the country who have been freed thanks to new evidence or to revelations of misconduct or irregularities in the handling of their case.
Warren hired a seasoned trial attorney and former magistrate judge, Teresa Hall, to lead the review team. Anyone - including a defendant, family member or attorney - can complete an application to petition the unit to review a case. The claims will be vetted to ensure the conviction was obtained in Hillsborough, the office has jurisdiction and a "plausible claim of innocence" exists to revisit the facts, Warren said. After the initial screening process, the unit will review and investigate the petitioner's claims, looking for what Warren called the common elements of a wrongful conviction, from false information from eyewitnesses or informants to discredited forensic science.
“Most staff attorneys quickly embraced the idea,’’ Warren told the Tampa Bay Times editorial board Wednesday, in forming what would be the third such unit in judicial circuits across Florida and the first in the Tampa Bay area. “They don't want to see guilty parties running free.’’
The review team will submit any findings and recommendations to an independent panel, which will include three prominent jurists - soon-retired Florida Supreme Court Justice Peggy Quince and former state appellate judges Chris Altenbernd and E.J. Salcines. The board will work with Hall on any final recommendation to the state attorney, who could choose to petition the court to dismiss a case.
Warren and his staff deserve credit for thoughtfully devising a system for legitimate grievances to be heard. Vetting of the applications should filter the vast majority of claims. The office will consider all felonies, but it focus on violent crimes and prioritize cases involving people who are still incarcerated. The review doesn't take the place of appeals or post-conviction review already afforded in criminal cases, meaning defendants are not robbed of any established due process rights. The new program should have the added benefit of raising the professionalism of local prosecutors and fostering greater confidence in the office among defense attorneys and judges.
Warren is delivering on a promise that is a credit to the community. Hillsborough joins 35 jurisdictions nationwide that are making a greater effort to ensure the right people are behind bars. As Warren says, one wrongful conviction is too many. This effort will bolster the effectiveness and integrity of the entire criminal justice system.