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Legislators indifferent to innocents

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By MARTIN DYCKMAN, Times Columnist
Published May 15, 2005

TALLAHASSEE - The virtue of a "citizen legislature," Florida's part-time lawmakers like to say, is that it encompasses a rich variety of life experiences. But it is not nearly rich enough when it comes to caring for what it's like to rot behind prison bars.

That deficiency was telling in two ways. One was that Wilton Dedge did not get a dime for the 22 years he suffered for someone else's crime, wondering whether he would ever get out. At least the Senate tried.

As for pork, however, the Legislature was all heart. Both houses agreed to pay $600,000 to a handful of hog farmers who were disadvantaged by the pregnant pig initiative.

Neither house gave even a moment's serious thought to extending the Oct. 1 deadline for filing DNA testing petitions on behalf of some 700 or more Florida inmates who contend they are as innocent as Dedge and two others whom DNA cleared before him.

The odds are extremely high that at least a few more prisoners are telling the truth. The Legislature's disgraceful inaction threatens to extinguish their hopes and even permit destruction of the physical evidence that might exonerate them.

It wasn't that nobody tried. Whenever Reps. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, and Phillip J. Brutus, D-North Miami, tried to pin a deadline extension on another bill, the subject was ruled out of order for resembling one that the chairman of the Criminal Justice Committee, Dick Kravitz, R-Jacksonville, was refusing to hear.

(Joyner is the rare legislator who knows. She spent several weeks in jail four decades ago for trying to desegregate movie theaters at Tallahassee. "Sitting in jail is different," she said. "Time passes and you begin to think that everybody has forgotten about you.")

When I inquired, Kravitz blew his top, complaining that "these innocence people" - meaning the Innocence Project in New York and the Florida Innocence Initiative here - had not approached him soon enough. In fact, they had messaged ample details to the legislative leadership early in March, which should have been more than soon enough. But the DNA issue failed to get the leadership's attention until Senate President Tom Lee and House Speaker Allan G. Bense took a question on the subject during a Florida Public Radio call-in show April 13. Both sounded attentive and eager to help.

Lee said he didn't think there should be any deadline. Bense promised to "move it to the middle of my radar screen and see what is going on with it . . ."

It did not stay on Bense's screen very long. The Senate Criminal Justice Committee, meanwhile, convinced Lee's office that no bill was necessary. That was only partly true.

When the Legislature extended the deadline last year - a year after it had expired - the Senate staff report cautioned that it might infringe on the Supreme Court's constitutional rulemaking power. The court, in fact, had already invoked that authority in order to extend the expired 2003 deadline and prevent court clerks from destroying DNA evidence in "closed" cases.

The court will have to act yet again, as Attorney General Charlie Crist expects it will. When it does, Kravitz and other hard-line legislators will work themselves into another froth like his fortunately unsuccessful effort this spring to eviscerate the court's rulemaking power.

A problem with leaving it to the court is that only the Legislature could make money available to the Innocence Initiative, a two-person nonprofit that depends on volunteer lawyers to file its petitions. In Florida, only death-sentenced inmates are entitled to public counsel for postconviction appeals.

The Legislature is clueless as to how much hard work is involved just to get to the testing stage. In brief: Each inmate's claim is reviewed for viability. DNA would be pointless, for example, in a rape case where the defendant claimed consent. That requires burrowing through files in the attorney general's basement, followed by ordering a trial transcript and initiating a public records search for any DNA evidence that might exist. If everything is still "go," a lawyer is recruited to draft a highly detailed court petition, to which the state usually objects. Then there is a half-year backlog at the state's laboratory.

This "labor-and-time intensive review process," as the Senate staff report conceded, can take from three to five years.

You have to wonder how long the Legislature would put up with that if a few of their own kinfolk were where Dedge was.

Or how fast the backlog could be cleared with the $600,000 earmarked for pork.

Martin Dyckman's e-mail address is dyckman@sptimes.com

[Last modified May 15, 2005, 01:21:24]


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