Bold change needed to reduce wrongful convictions

Published May 21, 2012

No one wants to see an innocent person wrongfully convicted of a crime, but it happens all too frequently. How to make it happen less often is the charge of the Florida Innocence Commission, which was established by the Florida Supreme Court in 2010. The commission met Monday in Tampa and will continue its hearings today. When the commission wraps up its work at the end of June, it should be prepared to propose serious reforms. Wrongful convictions are finally getting attention, but only bold changes will reduce the number of innocent people going to prison.

The commission is made up of prosecutors, defense attorneys, law enforcement and other professionals in the criminal justice community who have come together to examine the causes of wrongful convictions and offer potential solutions. The agenda in Tampa includes reviewing issues such as the excessive caseloads that prosecutors and public defenders carry, which put a premium on speed over accuracy. It's easy to see how this can lead to conviction errors. Overburdened prosecutors don't have the time to evaluate a defendant's claims of innocence, and defense attorneys can't provide a full defense.

Florida's commission is coming at a time of greater national interest in the issue. DNA evidence that proves innocence has identified serious deficiencies in the way criminal cases are handled. A new national registry of exonerations exhaustively details nearly 900 exonerations, including 32 in Florida, and provides information on nearly 1,200 more. The group of nearly 900 wrongly convicted collectively spent more than 10,000 years in prison — an archive of wrecked lives. When the criminal justice system gets it wrong, innocent people are denied their liberty. Their families are left behind often without a father or provider. Crime victims don't get justice because the real perpetrator went free, possibly to offend again. Everyone loses.

Because more attention is paid to offenders on death row and those convicted of serious crimes, their cases are more likely to be reviewed and mistakes found. The archive includes more than 100 who had received a death sentence and been wrongfully convicted. But there are undoubtedly legions of other, lesser crimes where a wrongful conviction has occurred. That is why it is essential that known exonerations are studied to determine what they reveal about the problems within the system.

Here is what we know: The most common causal factors that contribute to wrongful convictions are perjured testimony or false accusations such as from jailhouse snitches, mistaken eyewitness identification, and the toleration of official misconduct by police, attorneys or judges. Other factors are misleading forensic evidence and false confessions. This is consistent with the archive's analysis of the cases, as well as the research Florida's commission is examining.

Last year, the commission's interim report made recommendations to police agencies on how to conduct lineups that don't influence eyewitnesses. It was an important step, but without more far-reaching and substantial recommendations from the commission, there won't be real change. This is Florida's opportunity to better its system of justice.