Stetson panel discusses wrongful convictions

12/15/09 Kate Bradshaw
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If it wasn’t for the New York Chapter of The Innocence Project, a nonprofit that works to overturn wrongful convictions, St. Petersburg native Alan Crotzer would currently be rounding out his third decade in prison. Crotzer spent nearly 25 years in prison for a robbery, kidnapping and double rape that DNA evidence shows he did not commit; however, he kept his sense of humor as he spoke during a social justice round table.

Last night, Stetson University College of Law convened a panel to discuss wrongful convictions. The event took place at Studio at 620 in downtown St. Petersburg.

Cotzer is one of 246 people nationwide who have been exonerated by DNA evidence. The most recent, Donald Eugene Gates, was released from an Arizona prison today after he spent 28 years in prison for rape and murder. Last week it was announced that DNA evidence has cast doubt on the guilt of Lake Wales man James Bain, who has served 35 years for a rape he may not have committed.

Panelist and Stetson professor Judith Scully listed the many things that lead to wrongful convictions.

Crotzer, who was released in 2006, described how much his physical appearance differed from that of the perpetrator the victims had described. He said that despite this, his public defender barely paid his case notice.

Over the years Crotzer had sought help from a number of organizations. He says that when no one would look at his case, the Innocence Project took it up. The project now operates in 40 states. The Stetson chapter, launched a mere two months ago, works on a volunteer basis. It deals with the toughest cases – that is, those that do not involve DNA. Panelist and Stetson Professor Roberta Flowers said these are some of the most important cases because they are the hardest to prove.

Panelist and Stetson Professor Judith Scully said that there are a number of systemic flaws that often lead to false arrests and convictions. These include suspect misidentification and false confessions. She dealt with an extreme example of the latter while working in Chicago. The case, she said, involved torture and was apparently race-based.

The panelists said that there are many ways that the Innocence Project hopes to confront wrongful convictions. These include making DNA testing more readily available, taping confessions and adopting better methods of evidence preservation. Scully said that the process of investigating a possible wrongful conviction is complex, and requires time and resources that are often scarce.

Last week, a team of 68 lawyers asked the Florida Supreme Court to assemble a panel to find out why there have been at least 11 people who have recently been wrongfully convicted of brutal crimes. It would likely be called the Florida Innocence Commission, and would resemble a similar commission in North Carolina.

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