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Florida Supreme Court Orders Study of Wrongful Convictions - Southern Injustice

In an unexpected and unprecedented move for Florida – the Florida Supreme Court has now ordered the empanelment of a 23 person “commission” to be directed by Justice James Perry, a recently appointed member of the Florida Supreme Court, to study the cause of wrongful convictions in Florida. It has long been recognized that Florida leads the country in the number of wrongful convictions, especially in capital cases, accounting for at least 26 of the 130 exonerations of wrongfully convicted and condemned prisoners in the United States in this past quarter of a century.

However, until now Florida has adamantly refused to look into this virtual epidemic of injustice plaguing the state, even while other states with alarmingly high rates if wrongful convictions previously empanelled their own commissions to study the problem.

For example, the State of Illinois had previously recognized that a high rate of wrongful convictions in capital cases existed and empanelled an independent commission to study the problem resulting in then Illinois Governor Ryan declaring the Illinois death penalty fundamentally flawed and ordered the commutation of all death sentences – and simultaneously granted full pardons and releases to (9) nine death sentenced prisoners upon evidence of their innocence being uncovered by journalist students.

More recently a comprehensive study by the American Bar Association on Florida’s death penalty found that Florida’s system is “fundamentally flawed” and called for an immediate moratorium on all executions in Florida until an independent commission could study the manner in which Florida convicts and condemns death sentenced prisoners, and the adequacy of Florida’s capital post conviction review process that is the primary means in which wrongfully convicted prisoners can pursue the legal relief necessary to lead to their exoneration.

Until now Florida has refused to even consider conducting such a study, which comes as a surprise that it is the newly appointed Chief Justice Charles Canady, who as one of his first official acts of office has called for the creation of this commission.

Justice Canady himself was only recently appointed to the Florida Supreme Court and has spent most of his career catering to ultra-conservative politics in Florida, and been an outspoken proponent to the death penalty. Prior to Justice Canady’s political appointment to the Florida Supreme Court in 2008 by Governor Charlie Crist, Chief Justice Canady served as general counsel for republican Governor Jeb Bush. Under Gov. Bush Canady pushed through the “Death Penalty Reform Act of 2000,” which enacted statutory provisions streamlining Florida’s capital post conviction review process, adopting an appellate format which almost copied verbatim the Texas death penalty appeal process ~ with the same objective as Texas ~ to reduce the post conviction review process to nothing more than a deliberate pretense and expedite executions even if it meant executing innocent victims.

Before these draconian statutes could be put into effect, the Florida Supreme Court declared them unconstitutional over then General Counsel Canady’s strenuous objections. See, Amendments of Florida Rules of Criminal Procedure, Rule 3.851, 3.852, and 3.853, 797 So 2d 1213 (Fla. 2001). However, in a concession to the conservative political push to expedite executions, the Florida Supreme Court adopted new rules governing death penalty post conviction appeals making it substantially more difficult for wrongfully convicted, death sentenced prisoners to pursue the necessary post conviction review to prove their innocence.

During this time, numerous high level state and federal judges and justices began to publically acknowledge that because of the political tampering of the death penalty post conviction review process, innocent people were being executed. See, “Justice Questions Guilt of Executed,” Gainesville Sun, December 24, 1999 (Former Florida Supreme Court Justice Gerald Kogan publically acknowledging that Florida has “without a doubt” executed innocent prisoners); “Justice has doubts about death penalty,” St. Petersburg Times, July 4, 2001 (U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Conner acknowledging that innocent people are being executed)

Equally so, in a comprehensive in depth study of capital cases by the Chicago Tribune, Florida was cited as having an especially high rate of wrongful convictions in capital cases with systematic prosecutorial misconduct being the primary cause for innocent men and women being condemned to death. See, “Verdict Dishonor,” Chicago Tribune, January 10, 1999 and see, “Innocent on Death Row,” Washington Post, April 4, 2000.

Just last month (June 2010) Justice Canady was named Chief Justice for the Florida Supreme Court, a position he will hold for the next to years. The questions now is whether Chief Justice Canady’s call for a commission to study the cause of wrongful convictions is the product of a more enlightened individual now reluctantly aware of the fundamental flaws in Florida’s judicial system ~ or is this newly empanelled commission to be nothing more than a deliberate pretense intended to disingenuously whitewash Florida’s unconscionable history of wrongful convictions?