Sunday, December 13, 2009

Why are innocent persons sentenced to prison?

It took 35 years for the criminal justice system to face the fact that it had wronged James Bain, a man convicted of the heinous crime of raping a 9-year-old boy in Lake Wales and sentenced to a lifetime behind bars. For nearly a decade Bain was denied requests for a DNA test on the evidence. It took a state attorney finally agreeing this year for the test to be done. The results ruled Bain out as the perpetrator.

Bain joins at least 11 other Floridians who were convicted of crimes and imprisoned only to be later found factually innocent of the offense in recent years. The revolution in DNA testing makes it possible to identify these miscarriages of justice with absolute certainty, but it doesn't say anything about how these errors occurred. Florida needs a commission to study these cases, breaking them down to see the system's flaws, just like the National Transportation Safety Board analyzes every plane crash.

On Friday, a group of renowned attorneys that includes former Florida Supreme Court justices, former presidents of the American Bar Association and former Florida Bar leaders, petitioned Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Peggy Quince for the formation of an actual innocence commission. The request is modeled after a similar undertaking in North Carolina that brought together judges, police, prosecutors, defense lawyers, victims' advocates and academics for a two-year review of procedures in the criminal justice system. The commission isolated factors that helped lead to wrongful convictions and recommended changes.

Bain was convicted largely on the strength of the victim's eyewitness testimony. That sort of account by eyewitnesses has incredible power to sway juries even though it is notoriously faulty. Bain's blood type didn't match the semen found on the victim's underpants. He also had an alibi: Bain and his sister had been at home watching television when the crime occurred. But a jury convicted him anyway. Bain was 19 years old at the time and had no prior criminal record.

An innocence commission would comprehensively evaluate investigatory and court procedures, including those for eyewitness identification in cases like Bain's, and suggest new safeguards. According to the Innocence Project of Florida, witness misidentification contributed to almost 80 percent of the 245 convictions later overturned by DNA testing nationwide. (The Innocence Project works to find and free innocent people imprisoned in Florida. An actual innocence commission would look at established cases of wrongful conviction to determine what went wrong within the criminal justice system.)

The timing of a commission is important. Florida needs to know why it sends innocent people to prison, whether through individual errors or systemic problems. With DNA testing leading to exonerations of the wrongly convicted with increasing frequency, this is an ideal moment for public acceptance of a commission and its findings.

Once these old cases of injustice proved through DNA testing are exhausted there won't be another opportunity to demonstrate actual innocence with the same level of certainty. But there are still plenty of crimes such as embezzlement, where wrongful convictions occur but DNA is typically not part of the proof. In order to prevent these kinds of injustices, the nuts and bolts of the criminal justice system need reform.

Talbot "Sandy" D'Alemberte, former Florida State University president and a former ABA president, is behind the push for a commission. He points out that the state high court has regularly investigated administration of justice issues. Earlier efforts include commissions looking into racial bias in Florida courts, the impact of cameras in state courts and whether attorneys should be required to report their pro bono hours. An innocence commission falls within the court's scope of duties, and its establishment was one of the lead recommendations of a 2006 report from the ABA Florida Death Penalty Assessment Team. It's time to get started.

When an innocent person goes to prison it is a tragedy for society as well as for the wrongfully convicted and his family. His life is ruined, taxpayers pay for his upkeep and the real criminal is still at large. Florida needs to know how and why these mistakes happen so another innocent person doesn't spend most of his adult life behind bars.

A St. Petersburg Times Editorial Dec 09

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