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Retirement plan for Justice Peggy Quince: Root out wrongful convictions in Tampa

TAMPA — Peggy A. Quince retired in January after 20 years on the Florida Supreme Court.

On Thursday morning, she strolled through the sliding doors of an office building in downtown Tampa and marveled at how much has changed.

"How long has the State Attorney's Office been in this building?" asked Quince. In her early career, she was an assistant attorney general in Tampa, before ascending to the 2nd District Court of Appeal in the 1990s. She was appointed to the state's highest court in 1999, eventually serving two years as chief justice, becoming the first African-American woman to lead a branch of state government.

She was in Tampa to join E. J. Salcines and Chris Altenbernd, both alumni of the 2nd District Court of Appeal, for their first meeting as an independent review panel working with Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren's conviction integrity unit. Warren created the unit in November to help ensure his office sends no innocent people to prison. Assistant State Attorney Teresa Hall and her team have investigated 22 cases for possible claims of innocence so far.

READ MORE: People wrongfully convicted can now petition Hillsborough state attorney for review

The review panel will provide legal analysis and input on cases flagged by the unit.

In a legal career that spanned four decades, Quince knows that sometimes courts get it wrong. And when that happens, she said, it's an affront to justice. So she is enthusiastic about lending her knowledge and experience to helping root out wrongful convictions.

Before they got to work Thursday, Quince sat down with the Tampa Bay Times for a discussion of the panel, her time on the court, the future of the judiciary and the state.

The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Q. How was the conviction review unit brought to your attention and what made you want to be a part of it?
I got a call one day from the State Attorney's Office. They understood that I was going to be retiring in a few months and asked me if I would be interested in it. They explained to me what the conviction review board would be doing. And, of course, I'm always interested in projects that would advance justice. And I believe that looking into whether or not someone has been wrongfully convicted is one of the best things we can do to make sure that our system really is fair and just.

Q. Had you heard about anything like this before?
Not really. You know, as a member of the court, I have to be neutral about these kinds of issues. So I never really looked into it. But I did know as all people do, who read the papers or listen to the news, that there have been a number of exonerations over the years. That there have been people who have spent lengthy periods of time in prison who have been wrongfully convicted and I always thought that was an affront to justice.

Q. In your experience in the Attorney General's Office, was there ever any case that you thought was a wrongful conviction?
There were a couple of cases where I thought the state really did not have a good case, that they should not be appealing. And I would talk to the state attorney that was handling that particular case and in a couple of instances they agreed and we dropped the appeal. I cannot say that I've ever really had a case where I thought someone truly was wrongfully convicted. I think that when you are doing appellate work, you are truly bound by what is in the record, what has gone on at the trial court level. And you look at it with the eye of whether or not there was sufficient evidence before a jury that could result in that conviction. If that is the case, then I felt very comfortable arguing to the court that that case, that conviction, should have been affirmed.

Q. How is working on a panel like this like or unlike the Supreme Court?
Well of course on the Supreme Court we work in a panel of seven, in most instances. It will probably be a little easier with three. In fact, on the 2nd District Court of Appeal, we always worked on three-judge panels. I don't anticipate that it will be a lot different simply because everyone is given their opportunity to talk and to express their views and why they have their views. It's not just "I feel this," but, "I feel this based on whatever the evidence is that has been presented." So I think we will probably operate in that kind of fashion.

Q. How do you feel about the future of the court and of the judiciary as a whole?

I know that there are good people in this state. And I just hope that the people who vote for judges and those who appoint judges will understand the importance of having judges who are fair and impartial. That judges should not be appointed based on their political leanings or the desire that the appointing authority may have for various issues. But people who are willing to come listen to the evidence and really be fair to the litigants. And if the electorate understands that and votes for people who can be fair and impartial, I think we have a good future in front of us.

READ MORE: No black Supreme Court justices in Florida? 'This will be Rick Scott's legacy'

Q. Your departure from the court left the court without and African-American justice for the first time in decades. What are your thoughts on that?
I'm really disappointed. There were good candidates who had presented their credentials to the Judicial Nominating Commission. And I'm really disappointed that not one of them was even presented to the governor for consideration. And I hope that in the future the Judicial Nominating Commissions will look at that and understand that we do need a diverse bench. We need people from all aspects of our society to look at these cases. That's how we have a fair and impartial judiciary. I was also hoping that we get at least one other female, too. Because now we only have one female on the Florida Supreme Court. And of course, when I left, we had two. And both of us left at the same time.

Contact Dan Sullivan at Follow @TimesDan.