As Gov. Charlie Crist thumbs through the budget, looking for pork to cut, he should leave the $200,000 earmarked for the establishment of an innocence commission in Florida. It will be money well spent.
As envisioned, an innocence commission would audit Florida's cases of wrongful conviction the way the National Transportation Safety Board examines plane crashes. Each detail of what went wrong would be studied to determine whether new procedures should be adopted to prevent similar errors in the future.
Florida needs this. People like Alan Crotzer and Wilton Dedge spent years behind bars before DNA evidence confirmed they actually were innocent of the crimes they were convicted of committing. But there are plenty of cases where there is no DNA to resolve guilt or innocence with such certainty. Preventing wrongful convictions in the first place is often the only way to avoid miscarriages of justice for those crimes with no possibility of DNA exoneration.
The ongoing case of Leo Schofield, in prison 21 years for the murder of his wife, illustrates how hard it is to uncover potential wrongful convictions without DNA. Schofield has always maintained his innocence, even rejecting a plea deal that would have had him out of prison about a decade ago. Still, Schofield was convicted without physical evidence linking him to the murder. Only recently, after fingerprints found in his wife's abandoned car were matched to that of a convicted murderer, is Schofield being considered for a new trial.
The fate of an innocence commission in Florida lies not just with Crist keeping the appropriation intact but with Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Peggy Quince. It is up to Quince and her colleagues on the Florida Supreme Court to establish the commission and make appointments to it. But there doesn't seem to be forward momentum. Quince doesn't have to wait for the money to get things started.
Incoming Florida Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Melbourne, who led efforts in the Legislature to get the funding, told Quince in a letter in February that legislative staff could help do the background work that a commission would need. Since lawmakers have left Tallahassee and there soon should be a reduced workload for legislative staff, now is probably the best time for them to begin work on this project.
An innocence commission will help policing agencies and prosecutor and public defender offices around the state improve their techniques and learn from old mistakes to avoid cases of extreme injustice. The time to start is now.