Foundation helps fund newly formed Florida Innocence Commission

by Nancy Kinnally


James Bain

James Bain, 54, meets the press on Dec. 17, 2009, after being exonerated with the help of the Innocence Project of Florida. Bain served 35 years in prison for a rape and kidnapping that DNA evidence proved he did not commit.

When James Bain of Lake Wales, Fla., was released at the age of 54 after serving 35 years in prison for a rape and kidnapping he did not commit, his smile said it all.

Bain, who has the unfortunate distinction of having been imprisoned longer than any other DNA exoneree in the country, now has a new reason to rejoice.

On July 2, Chief Justice Charles T. Canady of the Florida Supreme Court issued an administrative order establishing the Florida Innocence Commission, which has been funded by both the Florida Legislature and The Florida Bar Foundation in hopes of making cases like Bain’s a thing of the past.

The Commission, which will study the causes of wrongful convictions and how to prevent them, is charged with making a final report and recommendations by June 30, 2012.

To date, 255 people in the United States have been exonerated through the use of DNA evidence. Of those, the 12 convicted in Florida served 241 years in prison combined.

Knowing that the system has convicted innocent people in these cases provides an opportunity, said Talbot “Sandy” D’Alemberte, a former president of the American Bar Association, the founding chairman of the Innocence Project of Florida, and one of the leading advocates for the creation of the Florida Innocence Commission.

“Given this knowledge, we have the ideal method for looking at the factors that have introduced errors into cases where we know that the citizen was actually innocent,” D’Alemberte said. “Drawing on that knowledge, we can make an effort to improve our procedures.”

He points to work done by the U.S. Department of Justice and by a number of state commissions indicating that the leading cause of wrongful convictions is faulty eyewitness testimony, including victim testimony. Other causes include the use of jailhouse informants and “junk science,” such as the application of faulty forensic methods or an exaggerated presentation of the conclusions that can be drawn from forensic evidence. Studies have shown that even fingerprint experts can be wrong, D’Alemberte said. Some wrongful convictions have even been based on false or coerced confessions.

He said possible remedies include videotaping of interviews with suspects, double-blind procedures for eyewitness identifications, systems to screen jailhouse informants and procedures to eliminate the use of junk science.

“Also, I hope that the Commission will look at jury charges and arraignment procedures,” he said. “Better education for law enforcement has already made a big difference.”

The Foundation responded to the Florida Supreme Court’s funding request with a $114,862 grant made through its Improvements in the Administration of Justice (AOJ) Grant Program. Among the grant program’s stated objectives is the improvement and reform of the criminal, civil, and juvenile justice systems. The grant will supplement a $200,000 appropriation made by the Florida Legislature to fund the commission for 2010-11.

Maria Henderson, then chair of the Foundation’s AOJ committee, said preventing wrongful convictions is in everyone’s interest.

“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 the state money in the long run and keep the focus on finding the true perpetrators,” Henderson said.

Sen. Mike Haridopolos was a co–sponsor of the Victims of Wrongful Incarceration Compensation Act, which grants inmates found innocent $50,000 for each year they spent in prison, and was the leading advocate in the Florida Legislature for the Florida Innocence Commission appropriation.

The son of an FBI agent, Haridopolos said he sought the appropriation for the Florida Innocence Commission because he believes in equal justice for all.

“Sadly, in my home county of Brevard, two gentlemen, Wilton Dedge and Bill Dillon, were wrongfully incarcerated for over 20 years in the Florida prison system,” Haridopolos said.

Making sure the right person is behind bars is the best way to ensure that people have confidence in the justice system, he said.

In its grant application, the Court stated that the Commission will study issues including “false eyewitness identifications, interrogation techniques, false confessions, the use of informants, handling of forensic evidence, attorney competence and conduct, processing of cases and the administration of the death penalty.”

Canady’s order indicates that the Commission, which is directed by former Monroe County Judge Lester A. Garringer Jr., may obtain input through public meetings, a review of existing research, contracting for new research, and comment from scholars, judges, state attorneys, law enforcement, private defense attorneys, public defenders, elected officials, victims’ organizations and the public.

“Measuring the success of the Commission will not necessarily be a simple matter,” Canady said. “But I would count the work of the Commission a success if it leads to the implementation of concrete measures that prevent wrongful convictions that might have otherwise occurred.”

D’Alemberte said he is impressed by the people Canady has selected to serve on the Commission and is hopeful about the results.

“If the Commission remains open to evidence about how the system has gone wrong when it has convicted innocent people and works with law enforcement officials and judges to improve our system, it will have done its job,” he said. “There is no settled agenda for the Commission but rather a well-based hope that they will operate in a collegial and constructive way to improve the ability of our criminal justice system to reach the truth.”

D’Alemberte called the Foundation the “essential organization throughout the effort to deal with wrongful convictions.”

Through the AOJ grant program, the Foundation has provided more than $1.5 million in funding for the Innocence Project of Florida since 2004-05, the most recent grant being for $319,600 in 2009-10. The Innocence Project of Florida, which represented James Bain, is the organization primarily responsible for exonerations achieved through the use of DNA evidence in Florida. The Foundation’s funding of the Florida Innocence Commission is an effort to address the problem of wrongful convictions in a systemic way.

“I am very grateful for the vital support given by The Florida Bar Foundation for this effort to improve the administration of justice in Florida,” Canady said.

He expects some of the recommended reforms to require legislative action, while others could potentially be adopted by court rule or by the administrative implementation of certain practices in the criminal justice system.

“Whatever the means of implementation, broad support from interested members of the public, the Bar and the criminal justice community will be important to the success of any reform efforts,” Canady said.

Haridopolos said he will be keeping a watchful eye, and he expects the Legislature to play a role in reform once the Commission’s work is done.

“I will be personally following the Florida Innocence Commission and its work,” he said. “I will review the recommendations made and ask for immediate hearings to go over those recommendations so that legislators from across the state can make an informed decision. I anticipate the Legislature looking favorably on the recommendations if they are backed up by facts.”