Florida’s Innocence Project partners with Stetson University to help free the wrongly convicted
A new alliance between Stetson University and a Tallahassee legal defense organization could hopefully mean freedom for some of the wrongfully convicted trapped in Florida prisons.
Since its creation in 1992, The Innocence Project has helped exonerate more than 240 people across the U.S., including 17 on death row.
The Innocence Project of Florida opened its doors in 2003 with a mission to find and free innocent people in Florida prisons. They do it primarily through DNA testing although those cases make up only about 10% of the total. Most involve things like false confessions, eyewitness misidentification and just plain bad lawyering, and according to Executive Director Seth Miller, are a lot harder to prove. “It just so happens that we have a legal avenue to get back into court with our DNA cases. So it’s a little more difficult in our non-DNA cases but because they represent the largest group of cases in the criminal justice system that need review, they’re really the most important and that’s why our office is working with the folks at Stetson to begin to work in non-DNA cases so we can expand the reach of the Innocence work in Florida.”
The collaboration between Stetson University College of Law and the Innocence Project of Florida began Oct. 2 and cases were assigned last week. Miller said the partnership was pretty much a “no brainer” for everyone. “This work is really compelling and I think that when a law school presents this opportunity to their students they want to get involved because it’s an exciting way for them to give back to their community, to help folks who are underprivileged and marginalized in society and maybe even have the opportunity to free an innocent person.”
It will be an ongoing project with 20 students, 2 to a case, working alongside 13 local attorneys who have donated their time to supervise the project along with Stetson Law Professors Judith Scully and Bobbi Flowers.
The students will devote a minimum of 20 hours per semester to tasks that include gathering new evidence, researching existing evidence and meeting with the incarcerated. Scully said she and Flowers bring a unique perspective to the students because of their diametric backgrounds. “Professor Flowers was formerly a prosecutor and I was a criminal defense attorney so we are really serving as models for our students saying look, this issue of wrongful conviction; of incarcerating the innocent is an issue for both sides of the criminal justice system. This is not a defense oriented project; this is an issue that is important to both prosecutors and defense attorneys.”
Up until now the Innocence Project of Florida has been funded exclusively by private foundation grants and donations. However, within the last two weeks they landed their first government grant from the Dept. of Justice to add to their arsenal.
Each year a small paid staff in Tallahassee fields between 800 and 1,000 requests for help, but because resources are so tight they’re only able to accept 12 to 15 new cases per year. Miller said that’s what makes the partnership with Stetson so important. “If Stetson’s able to help go through and represent 10, 20 or 30 cases in a year or two year period, that’s 30 less cases that we can’t get to. So it’s incredibly vital because it allows us to feel like we’re helping more people.”
Besides the valuable legal knowledge the students will gain researching the cases, Professor Judith Scully said even more important is understanding the humanity – or lack of humanity that can sometimes be involved in a system that is not perfect. “They are going to be meeting individuals who are claiming that they were wrongfully incarcerated; their lives have basically been taken away from them by the state. I think it’s important for them to be able to put a face to what injustice actually looks like and what it does to the human soul. If we can get students to understand that before they leave law school they will become more compassionate servants of the public.”
Professor Bobbi Flowers who coordinates the project along with Scully said the collaboration with IPF embodies what Stetson is all about, teaching students how to practice law and reminding them of why they wanted to do it in the first place. “…and that’s not true of every law school, many law schools think that all they have to do is train their students to think like lawyers and we truly believe we have to teach them how to perform like lawyers. In addition to that, we truly believe in public service and pro bono. We’re one of the few schools in the nation that require our students to do volunteer work before they graduate because we want to continue to send the message to every Stetson Law graduate that serving the community and serving clients is why they became lawyers. And so I’m very excited that the Innocence Project brings together those two very core values that Stetson has.”
In an article on the cost of capital punishment published in Sunday’s St. Petersburg Times, Susan Taylor Martin sites that a landmark study of all capital cases between 1976 and 1996 found errors in 67% of them. And she writes that since 1973 at least 138 people nationally have been exonerated and freed from death row. The average time between sentencing and exoneration was almost a decade.
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