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Chief Justice Orders Creation of Florida Innocence Commission

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By Gina Jordan

http://stream.publicbroadcasting.net/production/mp3/wfsu/local-wfsu-910978.mp3

Tallahassee, FL – The Florida Innocence Commission was born Friday. The Florida Supreme Court's new chief justice issued an order for its creation. Gina Jordan has more.
The move is one of Charles Canady's first acts as leader of the state's highest court.

"It's obviously a grave injustice when an innocent person is convicted and subjected to punishment. So the purpose of the Innocence Commission is to look at cases where that has happened and try to learn from that experience and develop proposals to avoid the conviction of the innocent in the future."

Using $200-thousand provided by the Legislature during the last session and a grant of nearly $115-thousand from the Florida Bar Foundation, twenty-three commissioners will get to work.

"They were chosen to represent a broad array of interests and perspectives involved in the criminal justice system."

For the next year, the panel that includes lawmakers, judges, attorneys and law enforcers will look for ways to help ensure that the courts protect against the conviction of the innocent. Commissioners will have their expenses paid, but there is no compensation for their services. Canady says they will provide an interim report by the end of next June. If they get an appropriation for a second year of work, they will issue a final report in June of 2012.

"There are a range of possible types of recommendations. There might be changes in the rules of court. There could be statutory changes, of course, that would be within the province of the Legislature. There could be other suggestions for reforms in various practices within the justice system."

The Innocence Project of Florida, which works to obtain freedom for prisoners who committed no crime, has been pushing for the commission. Board chair Mark Schlakman says there are a dozen cases in Florida where DNA results have led to convictions being overturned.

"One actually dates back to the year 2000, when a death penalty defendant who had been on death row for more than ten years died of cancer on death row and was posthumously exonerated by way of DNA evidence. The other eleven were non-capital crimes. Most recently, Jamie Bain served 35 years of his life. That is the longest case of wrongful conviction and wrongful incarceration that we are aware of, not just in Florida, but throughout the entire United States."

Schlakman says the commission's role is critical, because even those who have their convictions overturned can never reclaim the time they lost behind bars. Plus there is the issue of fiscal responsibility.

"One of these cases just by itself can essentially obligate Florida taxpayers in terms of compensation for millions of dollars."

The innocence commission is looking for an executive director. Once the staff is in place, panel members will start meeting. Chief Justice Canady calls this an important project for the cause of justice.

"I think we have a very talented group of very committed people who will tackle the issues involved here, some of which are very complicated issues in a very deliberate and thoughtful way."

Former Chief Justice Peggy Quince will serve as the Supreme Court liaison to the Commission, which will be chaired by Chief Judge Belvin Perry of the Ninth Judicial Circuit based in Orlando.