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No time for innocence

Prisoners petitioning for DNA testing have until Oct. 1 to submit their claims. Eligibility should be broadened and the deadline extended.

A Times Editorial
Published March 25, 2005

To rationalize his intervention in the Terri Schiavo case, Gov. Jeb Bush implied the other day that even criminals get better treatment. "There's no doubt," he said by way of example, that any court in Florida or elsewhere would "immediately" review a prisoner's claim to have DNA evidence exonerating him. If only it were so.

The governor must be unaware of the laws and recent history of his own state. Prisoners convicted before DNA was routinely tested have only until Oct. 1 to submit their claims. Those who pleaded guilty or no contest, as even innocent people sometimes do, are ineligible. There is no money to pay lawyers to file DNA petitions. Nearly 700 applications are backed up and will likely run afoul of the deadline. The governor's office is lobbying the Legislature for a constitutional amendment that, among other things, would prevent the Supreme Court from reopening the window of opportunity.

"There is only one vehicle, and it's dying," warns Jennifer Greenberg, the sole lawyer for the Florida Innocence Initiative at Tallahassee, which appealed to Bush to support legislation (HB 247) extending the deadline and broadening eligibility.

Prisoners who don't have that limited law on their side get what happened to Wilton Dedge. Of the 22 years Dedge spent in Florida prisons for a rape he didn't commit, seven years passed after the New York-based Innocence Project first applied for DNA testing on his behalf. The state of Florida fought stubbornly to keep the DNA from being tested or admitted as evidence, even claiming at one point that it did not matter whether Dedge might be innocent because rules were more important.

More than simple justice depends on passage of the DNA legislation that Rep. Phillip J. Brutus, D-North Miami, is sponsoring. Legislation that President Bush signed last year provides federal aid to states with effective post-conviction DNA statutes. But Florida has yet to do what the president urged, which is to "make doubly sure no person is held to account for a crime he or she did not commit."

* * *

Reacting to the travesty of justice that befell Dedge, committees in the House and Senate are preparing legislation to compensate people who are wrongfully imprisoned, as 19 states and the District of Columbia already do. At a meeting of the House Claims Committee the other day, the attorney general's office agreed with Dedge's lawyers that the sheriff's office and prosecutors who put him in prison are constitutionally immune from lawsuits, a fact that should oblige the Legislature to act.

The formula should be generous for lost income and legal expenses and payment should be automatic upon a judge's finding that a prisoner was actually innocent. It should not require legislative approval of each award, as one freshman legislator unwisely proposed. That would essentially mean a cumbersome claims bill for each person.

Sandy D'Alemberte, Dedge's advocate, reminded the committee that Florida provided automatic payment to nursery owners whose trees had been condemned to prevent the spread of citrus canker. Citizens whose liberty was unjustly confiscated surely deserve the same consideration.

[Last modified March 25, 2005, 01:00:17]

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