TAMPA — In 17 years as a lawyer, Teresa Hall has viewed the criminal courtroom from all perspectives — as a prosecutor, a defense attorney, and a magistrate judge.
Her experience, she says, makes her well-suited to lead the Conviction Integrity Unit, a new division of the Hillsborough State Attorney's Office established to help ensure that Tampa prosecutors haven't sent innocent people to prison.
Retiring Florida Supreme Court Justice Peggy Quince and former appellate Justices E.J. Salcines and Chris Altenbernd will augment Hall's work, helping root out wrongful convictions in Hillsborough County.
State Attorney Andrew Warren announced the unit's creation Tuesday and named the three prominent jurists as part of an independent review panel.
“We periodically receive claims of innocence,” Warren said. “We just never had a mechanism to do anything about it.”
Warren vowed to change that when he campaigned to be Hillsborough County’s top prosecutor in 2016. Since then, his office has researched similar units in places like Jacksonville, Chicago and Houston. He also consulted with the Quattrone Center for the Fair Administration of Justice at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, which in 2016 issued a report on “best practices” for conviction review units.
In recent weeks he hired Hall, along with an investigator and a support staffer. They will screen claims of innocence among cases that were prosecuted in Hillsborough.
“This will be much more of a factual review instead of a procedural review,” Hall said. “We will be looking at claims that they’re innocent and they have information not presented to the trier of fact.”
That means if new evidence surfaces, the team will look at it.
Claims will be vetted through a four-step process. It begins with an initial screening to determine whether the office has jurisdiction and whether there exists a “plausible claim of innocence,” Warren said.
From there, the unit will conduct a case review and an investigation of the claims. After that, they will present their findings and recommendations to the independent review panel.
Quince, who will retire from the state's highest court in January, previously served with Salcines and Altenbernd on the Tampa-based 2nd District Court of Appeal. Salcines and Altenbernd both attended Tuesday's announcement.
"Judge Altenbernd and I have reviewed, at the 2nd District Court of Appeal, many claims on post-conviction. Some of them were meritorious," Salcines said. "We look forward to helping the justice system be even better by an impartial review to make sure that no innocent man is serving in prison."
With the panel’s analysis and input, Hall and her team will make a final recommendation to the state attorney.
More than 30 prosecutor offices nationwide have established conviction review units in recent years. Warren has adopted the name used for some of them, "conviction integrity units.”
The concept first gained traction in 2007 in Dallas. In the decade since, the Texas city’s unit has had a hand in 28 exonerations, according to the National Registry of Exonerations.
This year, the State Attorney’s Office in Jacksonville became the first Florida jurisdiction to create a conviction review unit.
Hall and her team will look for four of what Warren called “pitfalls common to wrongful convictions" — jailhouse informants, eyewitness misidentification, false accusations and discredited forensic science.
“Everyone wants the actual perpetrator caught and no one wants an innocent person to go to prison,” Warren said. “We have an imperfect system. And wrongful convictions, although rare, do exist. And this is why it’s important to have a system in place to fix and minimize wrongful convictions.”
The Conviction Review Unit will accept petitions from anyone convicted of a felony. It will give priority to those cases in which the crimes were violent or resulted in a lengthy sentence.
Defendants or someone on their behalf can petition the unit with claims of innocence through a link on the State Attorney’s Office website.
Contact Dan Sullivan at [email protected] or (813) 226-3386 . Follow @TimesDan .