Hillsborough County State Attorney Creates "Conviction Review Unit"

In a letter dated March 14th, 1785, Benjamin Franklin noted as follows: "That it is better 100 guilty persons should escape, than one innocent person should suffer, is a maxim that has been long and generally approved". Franklin's quote more than implies the long standing existence of a very real danger: innocent people can, and sometimes are, wrongfully convicted. The advent and improvement of DNA technology over the past three decades has decreased the risk of wrongful prosecution in that potential suspects can be eliminated through a comparison of their biological samples with those found at the scene of a crime. These technologies have also had a retroactive effect in that those who have been wrongfully convicted are being exonerated through testing methods that were unavailable, or in their infancy, at the time the alleged crime was committed.

In the days before DNA and other modern forensic investigative techniques, faulty eyewitness testimony, coerced confessions, and perjured testimony by informants looking to improve their own posture in the criminal justice system are just some of the ways in which an otherwise innocent person could be placed in jeopardy or, worse yet, convicted of a crime he or she had nothing to do with. I can say, however, that in my years of practice as a St. Petersburg area criminal defense attorney, I cannot recall a single instance of malicious prosecution with regard to one of my clients. The prosecutors I work with in Pinellas and Hillsborough Counties really do strive to do the right thing and, should it appear that they have it wrong, they will not hesitate to either decline to file the charge, or abate prosecution if the charge has already been filed.

As a young assistant state attorney in Pinellas County, a case was re-assigned to me shortly after I started with the office. It was a worthless check charge against an elderly woman. In reviewing the case file, I did not believe that she uttered the check. I was convinced that her daughter, who had a long history of writing worthless checks, had stolen her mother's check book and forged her mother's signature. Nervously, I took the file to my then-boss, who is now a Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court Judge. After reviewing the facts, he simply asked "do you think the defendant did this?" When I responded "no", he told me to prepare the paperwork to have the charge dropped "haste-post-haste", and he would sign it. During that discussion, and many times thereafter, he told me that as a prosecutor, you must always strive to "do the right thing". Those words stuck with me throughout my years with the Pinellas County State Attorney's Office, and they have ever since.

Despite best efforts to get it right, there are tens of thousands of cases that are processed through the system in the Tampa Bay area each year and, invariably, there will be some instances where an innocent person is subjected to prosecution. It doesn't just happen here - it can happen anywhere. To help prevent such occurrences, various State Attorney's Offices have created conviction review units to look at cases, post sentencing, that may involve the inadvertent prosecution of an innocent person. Such units are already in existence throughout the United States, including Houston, Chicago, and Jacksonville, FL.

On Tuesday of last week, the Hillsborough County State Attorney's Office announced the creation of its "Conviction Integrity Unit", which has been tasked with preventing, identifying, and remedying wrongful convictions in the county. According to a recent press release, this initiative makes Hillsborough County the third judicial circuit in the state of Florida to establish a unit of its kind, and one of approximately thirty five jurisdictions nationally.

In a recent Tampa Bay times article, it was revealed that the person assigned to head the Conviction Integrity Unit has seventeen years of experience as a prosecutor, defense attorney, and magistrate judge. Apparently, her work will be augmented by a retiring Florida Supreme Court Justice and two former judges who served terms with Florida's Second District Court of Appeal. According to the article, cases will be vetted through a four step process: (1) there will be an initial screen to determine whether the State Attorney's Office has jurisdiction and whether there exists a "plausible claim of innocence"; (2) if so, the unit will conduct a case review and an investigation of the specific claims; (3) the unit will present their findings and recommendations to an independent review panel; and (4) a final recommendation will be made to the state attorney.

The Conviction Review Unit will screen all petitions received through a link on the State Attorney's Office website to assess the plausibility of innocence claims. It appears that all claims of wrongful conviction will be accepted for an initial screening, but the office will give priority to those in which the petitioner is either currently incarcerated or was convicted of a serious and/or violent felony offense. The investigation will be factually intensive and will focus on the evidence presented at trial and/or evidence that was not presented at trial. That a convicted person's sentence was imposed as part of a plea agreement with State Attorney's Office will not preclude a claim of innocence from being screened. It should be noted that the CRU does not review sentences that were lawfully imposed (if there is no question as to the petitioner's guilt, and the claim is that the sentence was too harsh, for example, this is not the proper forum within which to have the matter reviewed). Also, there is no right to appeal the CRU's determinations, but an adverse determination by the CRU does not prevent the petitioner from raising the same claims of innocence in another forum (such as a petition for post-conviction relief).

Franklin was right: the wrongful prosecution of even one innocent person cannot be permitted and must be avoided at all costs - even if it means the escape of a hundred guilty. While the development of modern forensic technology has lessened the likelihood of this happening, and has reversed situations where it has happened, more can be done. The creation of these units, I believe, presents a substantial step in right direction and further demonstrates the extent to which prosecutors will go to "do the right thing". I am certain the SAO will release updates on the effectiveness of the program in the coming months, and other jurisdictions will assuredly be paying attention. Will they follow suit by implementing similar units? Time will tell. And, as always, I'll keep you posted.