Conscience is inconvenient in Tallahassee
By MARTIN DYCKMAN
Published March 20, 2005
TALLAHASSEE - It is not true, despite wide belief, that Florida legislators cannot resist an invitation to a party. None of the 160 showed up the other night at a reception scheduled primarily for their benefit by Sandy D'Alemberte, the president emeritus of Florida State University and a former legislator himself.
He had already warned two other guests of honor, Walter and Mary Dedge, that the legislators they hoped to meet had many other things to do. That was true. There were certainly other parties.
D'Alemberte's event, however, was not the sort that plants the seeds of campaign contributions. The purpose, rather, was to arouse their consciences, which is not how many politicians prefer to spend an evening.
The object of inviting them was to preview a documentary film, After Innocence, the prize-winning account of the wrongful imprisonment of Wilton Dedge and six men from other states. The public can see the film on Showtime sometime this fall, and it will be featured at the Florida Film Festival at Orlando April 17. But it was important for the legislators to see it now.
However, other people did come, more than 100 of them, and most had not been invited to the reception. They were FSU students, for the most part, and they seemed eager to volunteer to help the Innocence Project's sorely overworked and unfunded Tallahassee office. Issues such as innocence and injustice appeal more to students than to politicians.
D'Alemberte is the lead attorney, pro bono, for Wilton Dedge, the Brevard County man who spent 22 years, half his life, in prison for a rape he did not commit before becoming the first Floridian set free by DNA testing. D'Alemberte and some colleagues are trying to persuade the Legislature to compensate him for those 22 years of misery and despair, of lost wages and vanished opportunities. There is also the matter of the $119,000 that Dedge's parents spent for the lawywers who defended him at two trials, which exhausted their retirement funds and forced them to remortgage their home.
Unlike some 20 other states, Florida has no provisions to compensate people who are wrongfully imprisoned. That ought to be one of the outcomes of the Dedge case, and there is no reason to postpone it.
There are some sponsors for a claims bill for the Dedges, and Senate President Tom Lee has agreed that Florida should establish a procedure for the similar cases that are to follow. But that only begins to describe what Florida needs to do. We need steps to prevent more such miscarriages of justice, to repeal the cruelly cramped limits on DNA testing, to provide funding to the Innocence Project and, above all, to reform the attitudes of prosecutors and politicians who prattle about "finality" being more important than the truth.
An advisory commission in North Carolina has recommended to its Legislature that it create an extrajudicial agency modeled on Great Britain's Criminal Cases Review Commissions. Those investigate claims of innocence after the usual appeals have failed. Since 1995, the commission serving England, Wales and Northern Ireland has won vindication for 149 people. The genius of such a system is that it exalts the search for truth rather than a fixation with rules, deadlines, and "finality." North Carolina may need a while to decide whether it is a good model to follow, but at least someone in the United States is thinking constructively.
The clamor in Tallahassee, on the other hand, is to create even more miscarriages of justice by making it impossible for the courts to correct them.
After Innocence is a brutally honest exposure of some reasons why the courts need more latitude, not less. Though more than 150 American prisoners have been freed by DNA, it cannot make the criminal justice system fail-safe. There is no DNA evidence in 90 percent of criminal cases. The failure rate documented among the remaining 10 percent, applied throughout the system, implies that there are many thousands of equally innocent prisoners waiting for some other truth to set them free. Moreover, what happened to Dedge could still happen to anyone.
After Innocence is a powerful antidote to indifference.
So perhaps it makes sense that the legislators did not want to see it. An aroused conscience can be an inconvenient, even troublesome, thing for people who think their ambitions depend on risk avoidance. A dormant conscience, they seem to think, is like a sleeping dog. Best let it lie.
Martin Dyckman's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
[Last modified March 20, 2005, 01:08:30]
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