Justice for the wrongly convicted
OUR OPINION: Find ways to stop sending innocent to prison
Being tough on crime is admirable -- as long as that tough stance doesn't ride roughshod over the innocent.
Leroy McGee knows about the roughshod side of Florida's justice. He spent nearly four years behind bars for the armed robbery of a gas station committed by someone else while he was at work.
Problem was, the gas station attendant mistakenly identified Mr. McGee as the holdup man. His attorney brought the wrong timecard to court, failing to prove that Mr. McGee was working during the robbery.
Mr. McGee was sent to prison in 1991. The diligent work of lawyer Michael Wrubel proved him innocent, obtaining his release in 1995.
On Wednesday Mr. McGee accepted $179,000 in compensation from the state for his wrongful incarceration. Mr. McGee joins a growing list of men who have been wrongfully convicted in Florida.
Among them are 23 inmates once on Death Row -- the highest number of Death Row wrongful convictions of any state. This number alone should give Florida state attorneys nightmares.
This year the Legislature can prove that it is not just tough on crime but also fair by creating an innocence commission to prevent more wrongful convictions. It should also simplify the wrongful conviction compensation law, of which Mr. McGee is the first recipient.
While it is often inadequate counsel that helps put the innocent away, it is competent, dedicated lawyers like Mr. Wrubel who get them released. Many are connected with the Innocence Project, a nonprofit national organization that uses DNA and other tools to prove the wrong person is behind bars. Florida's 22 freed former Death Row inmates (one died in prison) can thank the Innocence Project.
The group wants a state commission to study the wrongful conviction cases to find ways to improve criminal investigations, prosecutions and defense practices to prevent these travesties of justice. Last week Sen. Mike Haridopolos, R-Brevard County, slated to be Senate president in 2011, said he supported an innocence commission. The Florida Bar Board of Governors also backs the idea, as do former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno and other Florida attorneys. This should spur lawmakers to act.
The Legislature should also remedy the compensation law. Mr. McGee held off accepting compensation for six months to make a point: The law's ''Clean Hands'' provision excludes payment to anyone with a felony conviction from before or during the incarceration. So a minor felony can deny compensation.
The FBI must certify that a person's record is clean. And another trial may be required to prove innocence and a right to compensation. These hurdles can be expensive, necessitating hiring a lawyer. Most people released from prison must start over and can't afford an attorney.
The Legislature should remove the ''Clean Hands'' provision for all but the most egregious felonies and provide a modest attorney's fee provision to help the innocent have their final day in court before being repaid for time served for someone else's crime.