December 20, 2009
When James Bain was released from prison last week after 35 years, he wanted two things:
A glazed doughnut. And to hug his mother.
The scene -- a grateful and humble 54-year-old man emerging from a cell after science indisputably proved his innocence -- was rejoiced by many.
But there is a much darker side to this celebrated story.
For Bain's tale is not unique. In fact, when it was proved that Bain was not the man accused of the heinous crime of raping a 9-year-old boy, he became the 12th man in Florida to be cleared of wrongdoing after spending years -- even decades -- behind bars.
That's right -- the 12th. And that is just within recent years.
That this is a trend in this state is more than tragic. It is unconscionable.
Florida's pattern of callous disregard for life -- and make no mistake that is what we are talking about; the sanctity of life -- is something our collective conscience should be unable to bear.
Fortunately, a growing number of people are giving voice to that concern -- even while many of the politicians who could actually do something about it sit slack-jawed on the sidelines.
A group of widely respected attorneys and jurists -- including former Florida Supreme Court justices and presidents of the American Bar Association -- is pushing for creation of an innocence commission.
Their goal is to study the multiple cases of imprisoned innocence, discover what went wrong in the past -- and figure out how to prevent it in the future.
"When there is a plane crash, the NTSB [National Transportation Safety Board] is there within hours to find out what went wrong," said Seth Miller, head of the Innocence Project of Florida. "And yet, when we have wrongful convictions, we kick them out the door and move on. We have to look at them and learn from them."
We also have to do more when guilt is in question -- especially because it continues to be in question in Central Florida.
The highest-profile examples surround the now-notorious dog cases in Brevard County that this column has detailed before.
Already, three men convicted with help from a discredited dog handler -- who manufactured bogus evidence to connect suspects with crimes -- have been exonerated after spending years, even decades, behind bars.
But the dog handler testified in many more cases. And judicial activists are convinced others were wrongfully convicted.
Yet the men who could actually do something about that -- Gov. Charlie Crist, Attorney General Bill McCollum and Brevard-Seminole State Attorney Norm Wolfinger -- have refused to conduct an investigation.
Instead, these three career politicians have argued that it's up to the defendants themselves to prove their own innocence ... from behind bars ... and without resources.
Then, in cases where the wrongfully convicted are finally freed, they respond: See, the system works!
The lack of shame and humanity is appalling.
Only the most callous of souls could point to someone who lost the majority of his life to a wrongful imprisonment and suggest he is a shining example of justice in America.
In fact, even now -- even with a national justice group claiming that it has found a fourth man wrongfully sentenced to life in prison and connected to the discredited dog handler -- the system churns at a slow grind.
Last week, the state finally agreed to DNA testing for that man, Gary Bennett.
The news was good but also overdue.
It came nearly two months after Bennett's attorneys with the Princeton, N.J.-based Centurion Ministries filed their request for DNA testing -- and more than 25 years after Bennett was first sentenced.
That means Bennett will have waited more than a quarter-century for simply the chance to scientifically prove his guilt or innocence.
Why? Because often, these cases are simply not priorities for our elected officials.
The wrongly convicted, after all, don't constitute a powerful voting bloc. They don't write campaign checks. Many have few friends or family members.
"If there's one thing these guys have in common," said Centurion Ministries attorney Paul Casteleiro, "it's that they are all guys nobody will miss."
They didn't have the resources to mount vigorous defenses when they were first charged -- or knowledgeable attorneys who could combat the tactics, such as jail-house snitches, that are so often used to convict them.
Bad things happen when you convict the wrong man. Many bad things.
Sandy D'Alemberte, the former president of both Florida State University and the American Bar Association, detailed those things in his letter to the Florida Supreme Court that called for creating the Florida Actual Innocence Commission.
Taxpayers spend money housing and feeding someone they shouldn't. They can end up paying even more in compensation if innocence is later proven.
Freedom is unjustly stolen.
"Most important," D'Alemberte wrote, "when an innocent person is imprisoned, the actual criminal goes free and remains a danger to society."
Memo: Scott Maxwell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 407-420-6141.
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