TAMPA — The petitions are sometimes barely legible, sometimes incomprehensible. Sometimes they’re typed by defense attorneys. Sometimes they’re scrawled in faded ink from within a prison cell.
Some are terse. Some are verbose. But all tell stories. They’re tales of injustice, often convoluted claims of legal malfeasance, yarns about faulty forensics, mendacious cops and conflicting witnesses.
The papers, close to 300 of them now, make their way to Teresa Hall.
She is the attorney in charge of the conviction review unit at the Hillsborough State Attorney’s Office. It’s one of five similar units established in the past few years in prosecutors’ offices across Florida. They’re part of an emerging trend that aims to identify wrongful convictions from within prosecutors’ offices.
In Hillsborough County, it begins with the petitions. It’s Hall’s job to read them, and if necessary, look up the case files and search for any indication that a convicted person might be innocent.
It’s work that is often tedious, often arduous, sometimes overwhelming, but occasionally highly rewarding.
There are the standard questions:
How was the person convicted? Jury trial? Court trial? Guilty plea? Did the convicted person testify at trial? Was there DNA evidence? Is the conviction being challenged on appeal?
There is a place where they are asked to explain, in their own words, why they’re innocent.
“Because I didn’t do it,” is a generic refrain, one which doesn’t get the cases very far. But others are more promising.
From the petitions come the boxes, which are stacked with papers and folders with labels that say things like “post-conviction relief.” Once in a while, the stacks might spit out a cassette tape or a VHS video. Sometimes, what’s written on those papers sends Hall elsewhere — to police department evidence rooms to look at projector slides of aged crime scene photos.
In two years, about 64 petitions were dismissed or directed to another conviction review unit because the cases originated outside Hillsborough County. More than 100 did not go beyond a review of the petition itself, often because the petitioner did not provide enough information or the petition did not describe a plausible claim of innocence.
Somewhere between 40 and 50 cases have gone to the next step — an internal review. That’s where Hall pulls the files, reviews trial transcripts and pretrial depositions.
“I’m looking at the case as if I was going to have to try it,” she said. “I never only look at what the petitions tell me.”
Of those, about 14 have merited an external investigation. That’s when Hall goes outside the office to look at old evidence or interview witnesses.
The final stop is an independent review panel appointed by Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren. It includes retired Florida Supreme Court Justice Peggy Quince and retired appellate Judges E.J. Salcines and Chris Altenbernd. They get a look at the cases after they’ve been re-investigated.
The panel can make a recommendation, which goes to Warren, who gets the final say.
Warren’s office spends $245,000 a year on the Conviction Review Unit, which pays for Hall’s salary, plus the services of an investigator, staff support and victim advocates.
One of the first petitions came from Felix Garcia. He’s serving a life sentence for the 1981 murder of Joseph Tremontana, who was killed in a Tampa motel room. His attorneys have long argued that he was framed by the real killer, his older brother Francisco.
“There was supposedly a witness that could vouch that Felix didn’t do it,” Hall said. “We went and interviewed her at her home. ... She was all over the place. She wasn’t credible. I don’t think she was doing anything malicious. I just, you know, 30 or 35 years later, I don’t think she was remembering things. She was not getting any fact of anything correct.”
Another petition came from Paula Gutierrez. In 2001, she helped her boyfriend, Nestor DeJesus, rob a South Tampa bank, then went with him to an apartment where they engaged in a standoff with police. Along the way, DeJesus shot and killed Tampa police Officer Lois Marrero. He later killed himself.
Gutierrez was convicted of felony murder. Now almost 20 years into a life sentence, she petitioned the conviction review unit, recounting the mental and physical abuse DeJesus inflicted. She said she feared what would happen if she didn’t go along with him.
“I claim innocence because I feared the consequences of what he would do if I didn’t,” she wrote. “In a sense, my presence there that day was simply a way to save my life.”
It was a defense that a jury heard and rejected. It’s not something that Hall would typically examine.
But she still pulled the case files, which fill 16 banker boxes. Part of the purpose of reviewing the cases is to ensure that something wasn’t missed.
Occasionally, the cases hit close to home. One petition came from Leon Torres, who was convicted of killing a man during a robbery at a Tampa restaurant in 1985. The wife of the man who was killed is a victim advocate who works for the state attorney’s office.
Hall didn’t tell her until after the review was complete.
“I don’t want to be influenced by the people I work with,” she said.
Hall is perhaps an ideal lawyer to do this work, having seen criminal courtrooms from all perspectives. She was a defense attorney in her native Indiana and later a prosecutor. She also served as a master commissioner, similar to a magistrate judge, in Indianapolis, before moving to Florida.
The majority of the cases Hall has reviewed are homicides, which she finds most intriguing. She knows what should be there to support the conviction.
Others she’s seen are robberies in which someone was shot. She’s seen a few financial crimes, a few drug cases.
Most of the defendants are in prison. Some of them have been there a long time. Some will will likely die there.
About one-fifth of the petitions arose from cases that began within the last decade. Some featured prosecutors who still work for the office.
Others stretch back many years. The oldest? A rape case from 1969.
There was much fanfare earlier this year when Robert DuBoise’ conviction for a 1983 murder was overturned.
His initial petition didn’t portend an obvious case of innocence. Most of the case evidence was believed to have been destroyed long ago. But it was Hall’s efforts that led to the discovery of DNA stored at the medical examiner’s office, which ultimately proved DuBoise was not the person who committed the crime. He was freed from prison in August. An investigation of a different suspect remains ongoing.
“If I wouldn’t have dug and dug and dug, we wouldn’t have had that evidence,” she said.
Warren expressed his thoughts about the conviction review unit on the day DuBoise was exonerated.
“There is simply no reason for a prosecutor, when faced with the possibility of a wrongful conviction, to simply shrug their shoulders and say, ‘Sorry there’s nothing we can do,’” he said. “There is always something we can do.”
Part of Hall’s job is to educate prosecutors and police. She tells them if she thought a case was handled well. She also notes things that could have been done better.
Although most cases don’t see a conviction overturned, Hall says she’s seen patterns that illustrate how police practices and prosecutions have changed. Older cases are sometimes dogged by the fact that police didn’t record interviews with witnesses. She’s also noticed older cases where prosecutors warned of harsh penalties if witnesses didn’t cooperate.
“I think our profession and police investigations have evolved and improved significantly,” she said.