Incoming Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Melbourne, found the money in a lean appropriation year to fund an "innocence commission" that would without doubt save the state millions of dollars from incarcerating the wrong person in Florida prisons. In 2008, lawmakers passed a law automatically granting wrongfully imprisoned persons $50,000 for each year they were incarcerated.
Nationwide, 245 post-conviction exonerations have been based on DNA evidence since 1989 and Florida has contributed to almost 80 percent of those cases — clearing 12 Florida Death Row inmates since 2000.
Mr. Haridopolos' support of the $200,000 makes a large investment in public safety, too. When the wrong person is imprisoned for a crime, the actual perpetrator remains at large. Law-and-order standards, he has pointed out, include expectations of having a system that doesn't make such mistakes.
Creating the Florida Actual Innocence Commission is now in the hands of the Florida Supreme Court, specifically incoming Chief Justice Charles T. Canady. It will be up to him to ensure that the commission, which is just now getting organized, will begin the serious work of examining cases where the system has broken down, or has the potential to, such as handling of eye-witness testimony, improper use of evidence, false confessions, crime-fighting tunnel vision and inadequate defense.
The commission won't look for inmates who might be innocent and it's not intended to assign blame or point fingers. Rather it will look after the fact of DNA exoneration at errors of such a magnitude that they undermine our state's reputation for justice and identify broken parts of the criminal justice system. And, obviously, grave errors of justice cause the innocent person to suffer loss of income and reputation and punish their children and families with untold stresses.
Outgoing Chief Justice Peggy Quince is considering an administrative order launching the commission, which has been championed by former American Bar Association president and Florida State University president emeritus Sandy D'Alemberte.
Mr. D'Alemberte's petition called for a permanent, court-ordered panel of legal experts, police and victim advocates that would continue this deliberative work — a pattern recommended by an American Bar Association's assessment team and used in other states.
But the real legacy could well belong to Mr. Canady if he takes the next step in assigning permanence to this body through a court order so it can do more than issue a report and depart. He has the opportunity to make certain that the Florida Actual Innocence Commission helps put Florida in the forefront of actual justice for all.
An editorial from the Tallahassee Democrat published June 29, 2010