Innocence Commission: System Underfunded

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David Royse, The News Service of Florida

While calling for more training, some rules changes involving trial procedure and recording of certain statements, the majority of recommendations from a court panel studying wrongful convictions boil down to one thing: more money.

More money for DNA labs and technicians, more money for training of lawyers, and more money to make sure qualified lawyers represent those accused of serious crimes were all recommendations of the Florida Innocence Commission in the final report of its work, released Thursday.

"The underfunding of this system in this state is going to lead us to a situation where people will look at the system and have no faith or confidence in it," said Orlando area Judge Belvin Perry, who chaired the panel.

The bottom line, the commission said was, "inadequate funding leads to mistakes that may cause wrongful convictions."

"During the two years of its existence, the Commission identified five causes for wrongful convictions: Eyewitness identification, false confessions, informants and jailhouse snitches, improper/invalid scientific evidence, and professional responsibility," the commission said in announcing its findings. "While studying the topic of professional responsibility, it became crystal clear to the Commission that a sixth significant cause exists that may lead to wrongful convictions: The underfunding of the criminal justice system in Florida."

Not enough money is spent on the process for ensuring court-appointed counsel, which "invites ineffective assistance of counsel and wrongful convictions," the commission said, recommending that the Legislature move to link funding for private court-appointed lawyers to the seriousness of the crime, and not base it on a flat fee approach.

Many of the shortcomings in the system revolve around forensic science, the panel found. It recommends a new look at the salaries and staffing of Florida Department of Law Enforcement crime laboratories and DNA labs and recommended that the Legislature boost funding for the state's DNA profile database.

The commission's recommendations were in some cases very specific down to the dollar, calling, for example, for money to be provided for FDLE to buy 21,184 DNA kits and other lab supplies at a cost of $593,152 and more than $2 million for a particular kind of genetic analysis instrument and money for a particular type of software.

It also recommended picking up the student loan costs for certain lawyers who work in state prosecutor offices, public defenders offices, the attorney general's office and for regional conflict counsels, who take cases when public defenders can't because of a conflict.

There were also some suggestions for procedure changes and additional education for judges and lawyers.

The state should also adopt a jury instruction dealing with jailhouse snitch testimony, that lawmakers require electronic recording of statements and a rule change to require informant testimony be disclosed to defense attorneys.

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