Florida’s new Chief Justice Charles Canady wasted no time moving forward with establishing a panel to study wrongful convictions in the state, signing an administrative order only one day after beginning his two-year term overseeing the high court.
He is following up on the foundation laid by his predecessor, Justice Peggy Quince, who worked to obtain a $200,000 appropriation from the legislature after some recent highly publicized examples of men imprisoned for crimes they didn’t commit. The Florida Bar Foundation has also approved a $114,862 grant for the commission.
“Whereas, the occurrence of cases in which the innocent are convicted and punished constitutes a grave injustice,” Canady wrote in an administrative order. “Now, therefore, the Florida Innocence Commission is hereby established to conduct a comprehensive study of the causes of wrongful convictions and an in-depth consideration of measures to prevent the conviction of the innocent.”
The announcement was welcome news to advocates at the Innocence Project of Florida, the nonprofit reform group that petitioned the court for the commission.
“I find it quite extraordinary that Justice Canady took this action so soon,” said Talbot “Sandy” D’Alemberte, founding chairman of the Innocence Project of Florida and a former Florida State University president who drafted the petition. “I have no doubt about his sincerity and I think this shows he’s quite receptive to the idea that there are some improvements that can be made.”
While groups such as the Innocence Project seek out the wrongly imprisoned and work for their release, Canady’s panel will focus on policy measures that aim to avoid wrongful convictions from the outset.
“Finding and eliminating as many causes of wrongful convictions as possible will not only prevent innocent people from having their freedom taken away, but it will also save state money in the long run and keep the focus on finding the true perpetrators,” said Maria Henderson, the Bar Foundation’s grant program chairwoman.
“DNA testing alone has exonerated 12 wrongly convicted people in Florida. There are no records on how many have been cleared for other reasons but the DNA cases probably are just a small part,” said Seth Miller, executive director of the Innocence Project of Florida.
Quince will serve as a court liaison to the 23-member commission and it will be chaired by Chief Circuit Judge Belvin Perry of Orlando.
The list of commissioners includes Chief Circuit Judge J. Preston Silvernail of Brevard County, Leon Public Defender Nancy Daniels and Charlotte County Sheriff Bill Cameron.
False convictions are often based on faulty eyewitness identification, false testimony from suspects who have been offered a deal to implicate a co-defendant and “junk science,” Daniels said. One of the most famous examples was Wilton Dedge, who served 22 years of a life sentence for a brutal rape in Brevard County before he was exonerated by DNA evidence.
“The most horrible thing in the world is to put an innocent person in prison,” she said. “It’s not only a miscarriage of justice, it also means that the real perpetrator didn’t get punished.”