Posts Tagged ‘Florida’

There is No Time Limit on True Innocence

Taylor Thornton — April 02, 2018 @ 2:20 PM — Comments (0)

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Exculpatory evidence is any piece of evidence that gives favor to the accused party in a criminal case. This evidence, if strong enough, could exonerate the defendant from any guilt. But, what happens when powerful exculpatory evidence is uncovered after an innocent person has already been wrongfully convicted of a crime that they did not commit? That depends on a number of factors. One of these factors, unfortunately, can include how much time has passed.

A statute of limitations is a law that dictates the amount of time following some event within which legal proceedings may be initiated. In the case of presenting new evidence to exonerate a wrongfully convicted person, depending on the state that person lives in, there may be a time limit on presenting that new exculpatory evidence. In Florida, under rule 3.850 of the Florida Rules of Criminal Procedure you only have two years following a sentencing to file a Motion to Vacate Sentence based on, for example, a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel. However, there are exceptions to that time limit, an important one being newly discovered evidence. This could include a witness recanting their testimony, a Brady violation like when the prosecution withholds evidence from the defense that could be favorable to the defendant, or new DNA results. The request for DNA testing, under rule 3.853, has no time limitations in the state of Florida.

In comparison to some other states, Florida’s rules might seem very fair. In Alabama, for example, those convicted of a capital crime can apply for DNA testing if it was not done at their original trial but that request must be made within a year of their conviction. It should not be assumed that prisoners are fully aware of these statutes and the workings of the legal system as a whole as the general public typically is not. Placing that time limit on DNA testing can leave an innocent person in prison not knowing they need to file that motion within a certain period of time. There are also other constraints on DNA testing that differ among states like only allowing DNA testing for death row inmates, not allowing DNA testing to inmates who had confessed, or those who entered a guilty plea. All of these restrictions put a limit on true justice.

While states like Florida that do not time bar the right to DNA testing and offer various exceptions to their two year time limit seem very fair in comparison to many other states, it should be called into question whether any restrictions should exist at all. It is fair to say that dragging out court cases for years and giving unlimited appeals would cost an unreasonable amount of time and resources for the criminal justice system and the courts. But it is also quite fair to say that an innocent person sitting in prison for a crime that they did not commit should not simply run out of time to prove their innocence. If a person is truly innocent and suffering the awful punishment of imprisonment for actions they never committed there should always be an option for them to try to prove their innocence. At the very least, no states should place a time restraint on the testing of DNA, one of the most powerful pieces of evidence the accused can have.

One state showed last month that they may agree with this notion. On Monday March 12, 2018 the Governor of Wyoming signed a bill into law that allows wrongfully convicted people to introduce non-DNA evidence at any point following their convictions. This contrasts their previous window of two years to introduce non-DNA evidence and an unlimited amount of time to introduce DNA evidence. Hopefully this new law will serve as an example for the rest of the country to allow for more options for the wrongfully convicted.

It is important to remember that when a person is wrongfully convicted of a crime, that a criminal is left out on the street. When options for exoneration are limited, especially DNA evidence that has the potential to definitively exonerate someone and point directly to a true guilty party, it allows for a criminal to continue to walk free. The potential for tedious and costly wastes of time and resources in the court system is a valid concern. But, it is hard to say that these costs are more important than an innocent person’s right to prove their innocence. There should be no time limit on innocence.

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Exoneree Compensation Across the United States

Alejandra de la Fuente — October 03, 2014 @ 3:17 PM — Comments (0)

A Planet Money story from NPR that we missed last summer (June 2014) entitled, “When Innocent People Go to Prison, States Pay,” provides an excellent overview of compensation for wrongfully convicted exonerees in all fifty states.

Twenty-one states provide no money — though people who are exonerated can sue for damages. Twelve states and the District of Columbia award damages on a case-by-case basis. Another 17 states pay a fixed amount per year of imprisonment.

Amounts vary from $80,000 per year behind bars in Texas, to $5,000 per year in Wisconsin. Florida and six other states match federal compensation of $50,000 per year.  Not that any amount could make up for the horror and humiliation of being an innocent person wrongfully convicted and imprisoned, but it is something — especially considering that very few exonerees get any sort of an apology from the state.

Even more appalling, as this article notes, is the fact that states are willing to pony up some limited annual compensation in order to prevent innocent exonerees from suing for much greater amounts.  Many states require exonerees to give up the right to sue as a condition of receiving compensation.

At the Innocence Project of Florida our concern is that our state’s compensation law has a loophole known as the “clean hands” provision.

961.04 Eligibility for compensation for wrongful incarceration.A wrongfully incarcerated person is not eligible for compensation under the act if:

(1) Before the person’s wrongful conviction and incarceration, the person was convicted of, or pled guilty or nolo contendere to, regardless of adjudication, any felony offense, or a crime committed in another jurisdiction the elements of which would constitute a felony in this state, or a crime committed against the United States which is designated a felony, excluding any delinquency disposition;

(2) During the person’s wrongful incarceration, the person was convicted of, or pled guilty or nolo contendere to, regardless of adjudication, any felony offense; or
(3) During the person’s wrongful incarceration, the person was also serving a concurrent sentence for another felony for which the person was not wrongfully convicted.

So not only will a prior felony of petty theft or possession of marijuana make any exoneree, no matter how unjustly he or she was treated, ineligible for compensation, but if the inmate gets caught up in something while in prison–say badly injuring another inmate who has attacked or tried to rape them, they are also ineligible for compensation in the State of Florida.

In the best of all possible worlds, as Voltaire would say, states would show some recognition of and remorse for their mistakes that led to wrongful convictions and incarcerations of innocent men and women.  Instead, states begin by putting up roadblocks to protect their convictions, right or wrong, issue no apology to the men and women whose lives they have ruined, and then provide limited compensation to spare them from multi-million dollar lawsuits  And Florida adds another insult to the injury with its “clean hands” provision.  We ask the convicted to show recognition and remorse for what they have done; it is only fair to expect the states to do likewise.

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Stepping Out and Moving Forward Becomes a Reality for Johnathan Montgomery

Alejandra de la Fuente — February 28, 2014 @ 7:12 AM — Comments (0)

It may have taken 2,258 days, but Johnathan Montgomery became a free man in 2013 when he was released from prison for a crime he did not commit. Now residing in Panama City, Florida, Montgomery is working to move past all of the hardships he has faced in the last six years. In his trial for rape there was no evidence or witnesses, and yet, based on victims word, he was convicted of all charges.

Montgomery claims that he is acclimating to his new life well. He has bought a car and now has a full time job. He enjoyed Thanksgiving with his family this past year and was thrilled when his cat remembered who he was, even after being gone for over 6 years. WKTR in Hampton Roads, Virginia, covered Montgomery’s journey out of prison and has said, “Now, Montgomery is looking to the future. He has a full-time job and is about to become an uncle.He’s planning on buying a house soon and wants to settle in Florida.

As for the many who have followed his journey and have known him as the wrongfully convicted man who was failed by Virginia’s legal system, Johnathan Montgomery wants you to know this:‘It doesn’t matter where you’re at, it’s how you get there and I can’t be mad.’” Here is what the Mid Atlantic Innocence Project has to say about Johnathan.


Montgomery hugs his mom as they are finally reunited after 6 years in prison.

We are so proud of all the exonerees who are moving forward with their lives that they were forced to leave behind at the time of their wrongful conviction. We hope you join us to “step out and move forward” at our annual celebration, Steppin’ Out, on May 8th 2014, in Tallahassee, Florida, and support the amazing efforts made by these amazing men at one time had lost so much.

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Two Anniversaries We Should Never Forget

Alejandra de la Fuente — September 04, 2013 @ 8:00 AM — Comments (3)

Last week marked the 50th anniversary of  Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech; it was widely celebrated as well it should.  This week marks another 50th anniversary – the beginning of a horrific journey for Freddie Pitts and Wilbert Lee. One we should never forget.

Pitts and Lee after their retrial.

Pitts and Lee after their retrial.

A miscarriage of justice occurred on August 28, 1963 in Port St. Joe, Florida between Pitts and Lee and the local police. The two men were wrongly convicted of killing a convenience store clerk. Their conviction was swift and they were beaten by their interrogators. This blatant disregard for the law and due process as well as the racism displayed in Port St. Joe is difficult to truly comprehend.

Pitts and Lee spent twelve years imprisoned and nine of them were on death row. Their release from prison was made possible by a confession that was recorded by a Miami-Herald reporter. Curtis Adams confessed from his jail cell as he was serving a life sentence for another murder. Upon the news of their innocence, two Miami lawyers agreed to take the case pro bono. After numerous appeals the two men were finally granted their freedom by way of a clemency pardon in 1975.   The two men were eventually awarded $500,00 each for their time served in 1998.

The experiences of Wilbert Lee and Freddie Pitts must be remembered by all as a clear example of what Martin Luther King rallied against in his historical speech delivered at the Lincoln memorial. We too have a dream – that one day wrongful convictions will be a thing of the past.

Further information on the case of Freddie Pitts and Wilbert Lee can be found at the Tallahassee Democrat and the Commission on Capital Cases.

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New DNA Testing Reveals Florida Death Row Inmate’s Innocence

Alejandra de la Fuente — May 16, 2013 @ 4:44 PM — Comments (4)

DNA helped send Clemente Javier “Shorty” Aguirre to death row in 2006 for the murder of two Altamonte Springs neighbors. Now a team of attorneys have used a new round of DNA testing to prove the innocence Aguirre has been maintaining from the start. This round of DNA testing implicates the victim’s daughter, Samantha Williams, as the real perpetrator.

Cheryl Williams and Carol Bareis, Aguirre’s next-door neighbors, were mother and daughter found stabbed to death in their trailer in Seminole County on June 17, 2004. An undocumented Honduran, Aguirre initially told police that he didn’t know anything about the murders, though later that same day he admitted that he had discovered their bodies around six a.m. when he went to their house hoping to get some beer. When he found Cheryl Williams’ body lying in the foyer, he rolled her over to check for a pulse. Once he realized she was dead, he feared the killer may still be present and grabbed the knife near Cheryl’s body before walking through the rest of the house. When he realized no one was there, he panicked, discarded the knife, went home and stuffed his now-bloody clothes into a trash bag and threw them on the roof. He didn’t report the crime because he feared deportation.

At trial, the State prosecution presented DNA evidence to show the the victims’ blood was on Aguirre’s clothes, shoes, and the bloody knife, which is consistent with Aguirre’s testimony of how he discovered the bodies. The defense, unfortunately, conducted no tests on other bloodstains nor did they even view any of the 197 items of evidence that were collected in this case, much less retain a forensic expert to examine them. The State also offered testimony from a “bloodstain pattern expert” who claimed the stains on Aguirre’s clothes were “impact” or “cast off” rather than “transfer” (which is consistent with Aguirre’s testimony) and alleged that the murders occurred around eight or nine a.m., arguing in closing that Aguirre may have still been in the home when Samantha Williams’ then-boyfriend came to get her work clothes and discovered the bodies. The defense failed to retain any blood pattern, pathologist, or other forensic experts to counter the State’s theories or support Aguirre’s account.

Furthermore, at no time during the trial did Aguirre’s lawyer inquire about or otherwise present the jury with any of the readily-available evidence that Samantha was mentally ill, unstable, and had a volatile and at times violent relationship with her mother, including at least one prior threat to kill her.

On at least three occasions since the murders, Samantha has become so violent and uncontrollable that she has been involuntarily committed to psychiatric facilities. Nearly three years prior to the murders, Samantha had been committed to psychiatric care by her mother, during which time she threatened to kill her mother in the presence of others. Then in December 2007, she was videoed as she repeatedly banged her head against the interior of a police car, sobbing, “my family died from me,” and then threatened to “murder” the officer who had taken her into custody. Again in August 2010, police were called to her home after she tried to set herself on fire and told a neighbor that “demons are in her head and caused her to kill her family.”

The attorney who represented Aguirre at his trial has been found constitutionally ineffective by the courts in at least one other death penalty case he handled. In total, Aguirre’s trial attorney has at least ten former clients presently on Florida’s death row.

In August 2011, Aguirre’s new counsel at the Capital Collateral Regional Counsel – Middle in Florida, in consultation with the Innocence Project, filed a motion for post-conviction DNA testing which found that most of the bloodstains were traced to one or both victims, while no blood from Aguirre was found at the scene. By contrast, two distinct bloodstains were found to come from Samantha and were located in close proximity to the victims’ blood. Although opposed by the State, a second round of testing revealed a total of eight different bloodstains have been identified as Samantha’s, which were spread out over four rooms of the home, each near blood from one or both victims.

At the hearing that began in Sanford, Florida on May 13, 2013, Aguirre’s lawyers will be asking for post-conviction relief based on three separate grounds:

  1. that Aguirre’s lawyer was ineffective for failing to conduct DNA testing and investigate Samantha’s mental health history,
  2.  the new DNA evidence and pre- and post-trial violence by Samantha constitute newly discovered evidence that would have led the jury to an acquittal, and
  3.  the new evidence establishes Aguirre’s innocence.

In what seems like such a clear-cut case of innocence, it is certainly disturbing to consider the lengths the State has gone to in order to protect Samantha Williams from conviction, despite her long history of violence, instability, and pure animosity, while turning a blind eye to the injustices suffered by Aguirre.  Should Aguirre be exonerated, the State will have fought against the freedom of an innocent person and possibly undercut their ability to prosecute the real perpetrator.  This would be the ultimate injustice to both Mr. Aguirre and the victims in this case.

Aguirre is represented by Maria DeLiberato and Marie-Louise Samuels Parmer with the Capital Collateral Regional Counsel – Middle Region.  Nina Morrison and Barry Scheck of the Innocence Project and Seth Miller and Melissa Montle of the Innocence of Florida are serving as co-counsel.

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Meet Alan Crotzer and Learn More About IPF’s Work

Alejandra de la Fuente — January 09, 2012 @ 11:02 AM — Comments (0)

12 of 13 Florida DNA exonerees have seen the bright light of freedom.The Innocence Project of Florida will present an educational program on Thursday, January 19, 2012, at 2:00 p.m. at the Selby Library in Sarasota (1331 First Street). The program will be held in the auditorium and is free and open to the public.

Seth Miller, Executive Director of the Innocence Project of Florida, will discuss the causes of wrongful convictions, the potential corrective actions that may prevent future wrongful convictions and our work to find and free innocent people in Florida prisons and help them rebuild their lives.

Seth will be joined by Florida DNA exoneree Alan Crotzer who spent 24.5 years locked away for a crime he did not commit before DNA testing proved his innocence. Alan was exonerated in January 2006 and has become a sought-after speaker and advocate for criminal justice reforms.

Please join us to learn more about the work of the Innocence Project of Florida and hear Alan’s story of perseverance and strength.

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Witness Misidentification: Costs, Causes, and Cures

Alejandra de la Fuente — January 09, 2012 @ 10:39 AM — Comments (0)

Northwestern Law School’s Center on Wrongful Convictions web site states that, “erroneous eyewitness testimony — whether offered in good faith or perjured — is the single greatest cause of wrongful convictions in the U.S. criminal justice system. According to The Innocence Project’s site, eyewitness misidentification plays a role in over 75 percent of cases that are overturned by DNA evidence. Looking at these numbers, it seems a bit ridiculous that the justice system would consider eyewitness testimony to be sacrosanct pieces of evidence, and yet they are.

Why exactly is it that witness misidentifications are so prevalent? The answer, frankly, is simple, and can be seen in social science research that has been conducted over the past 30 years. The Innocence Project makes a comparison between the human mind and tape recorders, asserting that the human mind is clearly not capable of taking in, processing, and recording exact details and events the way that a video camera or tape recorder can, and for that reason alone human memories should be taken as possibilities, not facts. Further, witnesses often experience some level of victimization as a result of being so closely involved with crime, and anyone who has been a victim of a crime can attest to the way that victimization affects one’s memory.

For a more engaging way to see the flaws of human perception and memory, watch this video. If you read ahead before watching, you’ll cheat yourself out of the experience!

Don’t read ahead…watch the video first.

Did you notice the moonwalking bear? I know I certainly did not when I first watched the video, but after viewing it again I cannot imagine how I missed it. If the human mind isn’t able to notice something so different while sitting in a calm, controlled environment, then how can it possibly be expected to register events under the stress undergone when watching a crime take place?

All of these things said, however, witness identifications and testimonies can be useful and powerful tools of the criminal justice system, if used correctly. There are a variety of steps that could be taken to decrease the probability of misidentification. Most of these measures could be implemented easily and with little to no cost to law enforcement, the legal system, or taxpayers.

Use of a double-blind procedure in orchestrating lineups could seriously cut down on accidental or intentional influencing of witnesses. This double-blind would ensure that neither the administrator or the lineup nor the witness would know which individual was the suspect. There is also a lineup protocol currently endorse by Northwestern Center on Wrongful Convictions, The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, and the MacArthur Justice Center that, in addition to using a double-blind procedure, presents suspects sequentially as opposed to placing them all side by side. This method is said to reduce the tendency of witnesses to make relative judgements about the suspects, which can often lead to misidentifications.

These methods are incredibly simple to implement and cost little-to-nothing to implement. If law enforcement agencies nationwide were to adopt these methods, they could seriously decrease the largest cause of wrongful convictions. In April of last year the Florida Senate passed a bill known as the Eyewitness Identification Reform Act. This bill would have implemented the above procedures and would also have instituted the use of educational materials and training for law enforcement officers regarding how to conduct a lineup, as well as a standard set of instructions for eyewitnesses before viewing the lineup. Unfortunately, the bill stalled and was ultimately withdrawn from consideration in the House of Representatives. Unfortunately, there is not a similar bill being proposed during this legislative session. I guess the citizens of Florida will have to wait until next year.

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The Value of a Human Life

Alejandra de la Fuente — June 20, 2011 @ 4:12 PM — Comments (1)

You often hear the phrase that it’s impossible to place a value on a human life. I would argue that, in fact, “the impossible” occurs every day. Actuaries employed by insurance companies are paid to calculate a premium value for a human life based on an individual’s risk factors determined, in part, by race, gender, and socioeconomic status. I would also argue that some law enforcement officials assign a life’s value when they over-zealously investigate some crimes – especially homicide – while putting others on the back burner.

The death of an upstanding citizen or high profile individual, for instance, usually garners the force of the justice system more vigorously than that of a homeless person or one previously convicted of a crime, petty or otherwise. I would also argue that law enforcement, and society in general, care less about wrongful conviction if the defendant is from meager or questionable circumstances than if he is not.

One has only to watch the endless popular parade of real-life crime documentaries on television. Routinely, programs such as “Dateline” and “48 Hours” feature articulate, well-connected families that know how to use the media to keep alive the investigations of crimes perpetrated against their loved ones. Reruns of “Cold Case Files”, on the other hand, often spotlight crimes against powerless families who mourn the loss of their loved ones until some investigator takes up their case because he or she is assigned to close out old crime files or the agency gets a grant to run DNA tests on exhibits in its evidence locker.

There are obvious dangers in applying a crass cost-benefit analysis to either rushing to flawed judgment in prosecuting individuals accused of crimes or prematurely abandoning the pursuit of justice, however. Even ignoring the suffering of the wrongly accused, let’s focus on the financial costs to communities that house or execute the wrong person.

This came to mind recently as Governor Scott signed into law the end of the Commission on Capital Cases, thus terminating the sole Florida statutory body assigned the responsibility of reviewing capital convictions. He did it to save the State of Florida $400,000, according to the Tallahassee Democrat. However, he apparently did not consider other financial consequences to the State.

I’m talking about real, identifiable expenses including taxpayer costs to prosecute, house, clothe, feed, provide medical care, and (God forbid) put to death the wrongly convicted. And what of the appeals’ process costs footed by the State? Not to mention the court costs incurred by using resources to further clog court dockets by diverting funds to pursue the wrong person. Furthermore, since the actual perpetrator may still be at large, the State might be spending money to investigate and prosecute crimes that could have been prevented had we taken more care to prosecute the right person.

Finally, what about compensation costs once we discover that we got it wrong in the first place? Especially in view of what the Tallahassee Democrat reiterates – that…”since 1973… Florida has exonerated more inmates sentenced to death than any other state.”

These facts seriously call into question the direction our State is taking leaving us asking why?

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Where’s the Outrage?

Alejandra de la Fuente — June 10, 2011 @ 12:22 PM — Comments (1)

I’ve never been arrested –falsely or otherwise. Nobody I love has ever been imprisoned. So why does it bother me so much that, at this very moment, persons who are perfect strangers to me are doing time for someone else’s crime?

I think I know.

Being put in a cage for a wrong you didn’t commit is one of the worst things that can possibly happen to you. Even though some might not share my passion for this injustice in a world where injustice runs rampant, all would agree that having that happen to them is, in a word, unspeakable. So where’s the public outcry?

To date, Innocence Projects nationwide have helped exonerate more than 270 persons wrongly convicted of crimes. With this in mind, why don’t “we the people” clamor for more safeguards to prevent egregious injustice like this from continuing? With existing DNA testing, the truth is often accessible. So why do prosecutors continue their efforts to suppress the truth? And where’s the outrage when they do?

I believe once-prized beliefs are under siege — namely truth, compassion, courage, and selflessness. They’ve become unfashionable, un-cool and are often trumped by self-importance, shallowness, selfishness, and complacency. The State of Florida, for example, had a chance to reverse this trend during this legislative session. But it did not.

Our elected leaders lacked the political will to say to say “Yes” to improving police photo identification procedures. They rejected efforts to set up reviews for death penalty cases. And they said “No”  to compensating Bill Dillon, who ripped out the fixtures in his cell because it was all he could do to vent his hopelessness and frustration at forfeiting more than 27 years of his life for a crime he didn’t commit.

Shame on our leaders for their callous disregard of upholding the pursuit of justice and readdressing an injustice that has been brought to their attention. And shame on all of us for not displaying more outrage directed at pressuring them to more effectively uphold the values we profess to hold dear.

Collectively, as citizens of our nation and, most specifically, our state, we have to do better.

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April Video Update – Big, Big News!

Alejandra de la Fuente — April 21, 2011 @ 10:00 AM — Comments (7)

In this report, Executive Director Seth Miller describes the day that Derrick Williams was exonerated – April 4th – and the events leading up to this “joyous, powerful and once-in-a-lifetime” occasion. Seth also provides an update on the progress of the Witness Identification Reform Act in the Florida Legislature.

Video Summary
Derrick Williams was exonerated on April 4, 2011 after an emotional roller coaster ride and 18 years of wrongful incarceration. Two weeks after Derrick’s two-day evidentiary hearing, we received the court order vacating his convictions. Read the order here. At this point, the State Attorney’s Office had three choices: they could drop the charges allowing Derrick to go free, or they could retry Derrick, or appeal the ruling. Surprisingly they filed a notice to appeal the ruling, which would have kept Derrick in prison for an additional six to 12 months while the appeal was being decided. Read our blog post about this unprecedented decision here.

However, on Monday, April 4th, we received a phone call from the prosecutor indicating they had changed their minds and were withdrawing the appeal and dropping the all charges. Exuberantly, IPF staff drove 300+ miles to Hardee Correctional Institute and walked Derrick out of prison into the arms of his family.  Derrick became the 13th Florida DNA exoneree and the 268th person in the nation to be exonerated by postconviction DNA testing.

In the video, Seth also discusses the progress of the Witness Identification Reform Act (SB 1206 and HB 821) in the Florida Legislature. HB 821 has been dramatically, and sadly, watered down. Stay tuned for continued action alerts about this important legislation.

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