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Florida Innocence Commission Makes Recommendations to Prevent Wrongful Convictions

The Florida Innocence Commission's final report, presented to the Florida Supreme Court on June 25, 2012, included a number of recommendations to address issues related to wrongful convictions in the Sunshine State.

Due to having one of the highest rates of wrongful convictions in the nation, the Florida Supreme Court established the 25-member blue-ribbon panel in July 2010 to determine the causes of wrongful convictions and what can be done to prevent them.

Specifically, the Florida Innocence Commission was formed to “provide a mechanism to recommend to the Supreme Court of Florida solutions to eliminate or significantly reduce the causes for wrongful or erroneous convictions.” The Commission held meetings in Tallahassee, Tampa, Jacksonville and Orlando; heard testimony from experts; and reviewed several wrongful conviction cases.

The Commission identified five primary factors that contribute to wrongful convictions: Unreliable jailhouse snitch testimony, eyewitness misidentification, false confessions, invalidated or improper scientific evidence, and professional responsibility and ac-countability of both prosecutors and defense attorneys. Another, more general contributing factor identified by the Commission was the “underfunding of the criminal justice system in Florida.”

According to the Innocence Project, a New York-based nonprofit that works to free the innocent, jailhouse informants were a contributing factor in 15% of wrongful convictions; in murder cases, jailhouse snitches were involved 50% of the time.

One such case in Florida involved Chad Heins, who served almost 11 years of a life sentence for a murder he did not commit. At trial, the sole evidence against him consisted of the testimony of two jailhouse snitches who lied and claimed Heins had confessed to killing his sister-in-law. He was exonerated in December 2007 based on DNA evidence.

In two other unrelated Florida cases, William Dillon was convicted of murder and Wilton Dedge of rape due, in large part, to testimony from jailhouse snitches. Both were cleared by DNA evidence – Dillon after spending 27 years in prison and Dedge after serving eight years. [See: PLN, Aug. 2011, p.30].

To admit scientific evidence at trial, Florida’s criminal procedure rules require a pretrial reliability test before such evidence is admitted, noted Henry “Hank” Coke III, a Jacksonville attorney, Commission member and former president of the Florida Bar. The rules should also require a similar test for something as “critically important” as jailhouse informant testimony, he said.

The Commission considering having the credibility of jailhouse snitches, including witnesses with pending criminal charges, determined by a judge. That would be similar to Illinois law, which is the only state that requires a judge to determine whether a jailhouse informant’s testimony is reliable enough to be admissible – but even then, the law only applies in death penalty cases.

At a reliability hearing, the judge would review the jailhouse snitch’s criminal record, if there was a promise or reward for his or her testimony, whether the informant had given such testimony in the past, and whether he or she had previously recanted testimony. Ultimately, however, the Florida Innocence Commission voted against recommending that the state legislature enact a statute requiring pretrial admissibility hearings for jailhouse snitch testimony.

Instead, the Commission recommended “the adoption of a jury instruction regarding the testimony of persons who have been labeled by the Commission as an ‘informant witnesses.’” The proposed instruction would inform jurors that they “must consider some witnesses’ testimony with more caution than others. For example, paid informants, witnesses who have been promised immunity from prosecution, or witnesses who hope to gain more favorable treatment in their own cases, may have a reason to make a false statement in order to strike a good bargain with the State.”

Additionally, the Commission suggested an amendment to the Florida Rules of Criminal Procedure that would ensure “information regarding the possible testimony of an informant witness is disclosed to the defense.”

Texas and California require jailhouse snitch testimony to be corroborated, but the Florida Innocence Commission declined to make that recommendation.

In its interim report filed with the Florida Supreme Court on June 6, 2011, the Commission recommended a new jury instruction to address issues related to eyewitness identification, but made no further recommendations in its final report. This is in spite of the Innocence Project’s finding that “eyewitness misidentification has played a role in more than 75% of convictions subsequently overturned through DNA testing.”

With respect to scientific evidence, among other suggestions the Commission recommended the certification of crime scene technicians; that “the Florida Legislature reevaluate the salaries and staffing of the biology section of the [Florida Dept. of Law En-forcement] crime laboratories in order for FDLE to be more competitive and able to hire and retain trained personnel”; that more funding be provided for DNA testing; and that the Florida Judicial College provide annual education classes to judges on the admissibility of expert testimony.

In regard to false confessions, the Commission suggested that the “Florida Legislature adopt a statute mandating the electronic recording of statements of suspects during a custodial interrogation,” and that the Supreme Court Committee on Standard Jury Instructions in Criminal Cases approve a companion jury instruction that would inform jurors they must weigh the credibility of a confession that was not electronically recorded by law enforcement officers.

As to the professional responsibility of prosecutors and defense counsel, the Commission recommended funding for “a series of on-line training courses that are available to all government attorneys practicing in the criminal law area,” amending or creating a new Rule of Criminal Procedure requiring “any attorney who is practicing law in a felony case [to have] completed at least a two-hour course regarding the law of discovery and Brady responsibilities,” and having appellate courts consider identifying attorneys who engage “in serious misconduct, whether defense or prosecution, that results in a reversal of a conviction.”

Lastly, in terms of criminal justice funding, the Commission wrote that it “recognizes the experience and stability of staffing in the state attorney, public defender, attorney general, and regional conflict counsel offices, reduce the likelihood of wrongful convictions and increase the likelihood of effective assistance of counsel,” and therefore recommended legislation to provide funding for student loan assistance for prosecutors and public defenders. Also, as the Commission determined that the current funding process for private court-appointed counsel for criminal defendants “invites ineffective assistance of counsel and [thus] wrongful convictions,” the Commission suggested that the legislature change the funding methodology for court-appointed counsel.

“As is evident by an examination of the reports produced by the Commission, a number of sound recommendations have been offered that if implemented, could lessen the likelihood of individuals enduring wrongful convictions in Florida,” wrote Committee Chairman Belvin Perry, Chief Judge of the Ninth Judicial Circuit. “However, we cannot ignore the fact that if these recommendations are not given serious consideration, thoroughly vetted and implemented in some form, then the problems suffered in the past of wrongful convictions and innocent people sentenced to prison will continue to occur.”

Unfortunately, many of the Commission’s recommendations were largely window-dressing or toothless, and failed to address important aspects of the criminal justice process – including mistaken eyewitness identification and tighter controls over jailhouse snitch testimony – that would result in more meaningful reforms. Thus, even if the Commission’s suggestions are adopted and implemented, wrongful convictions in Florida are still likely to persist.

Sources: Orlando Sentinel; “Final Report to the Supreme Court of Florida,” Florida Innocence Commission (June 25, 2012)

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