Lawmakers must come up with better funding for the state police’s DNA lab and the overburdened court system, according to a panel created by the Florida Supreme Court to examine wrongful convictions.
The Florida Innocence Commission made clear in a final report Thursday, that woeful funding is putting defendants at risk.
“We cannot avoid the reality that a number of the problems in our system in our system of justice deal with the issue of adequate funding,” wrote Belvin Perry Jr., a chief circuit judge in Orlando who headed the commission, created in December 2009 to examine why people are wrongfully convicted of crimes. “Prosecutors, public defenders, and the courts are overburdened and do not have adequate tools and resources to keep pace with the volume and complexity of the cases before them.”
The commission was formed after DNA testing showed that a list of Florida men in recent years had been wrongfully convicted of crimes.
Holding meetings around the state, the panel heard testimony about the most common reasons for wrongful convictions, including incorrect eyewitness testimony, false scientific evidence and false confessions.
The group made other recommendations, including urging the Legislature to mandate that police electronically record suspect interrogations, establish certified training for crime scene technicians and possibly issue special jury instructions dealing with jailhouse witnesses.
Funding woes quickly became the major culprit as the panel heard testimony.
Thursday’s final report comes as the Florida Association of Defense Lawyers is preparing legal challenges to a new and controversial system of paying private lawyers that the organization says will harm defendants.
Senate Bill 1960, passed in March, created a “limited registry” pool of lawyers that will accept flat fees for court-appointed cases. The catch: lawyers in the pool cannot ask for additional money.
A third-degree felony, punishable by up to five years in prison, would cost taxpayers $750. The fees increase with the severity of the crime, with a first-degree felony case calling for a mandatory life term case, would cost taxpayers $2,500.
In major cases, including murder charges, that require hundreds of hours of work, that would translate to less than the state’s $7.67 minimum wage. The new registry, set to go into effect July 1, does not apply to death penalty and racketeering cases.
The reason for the change, lawmakers said, is that the amount of additional taxpayer money being paid to private lawyers was regularly increasing.
The pool of lawyers will get first crack at representing clients who cannot be represented by the Public Defender’s Office or a second state-funded legal defense firm. If no one signs up for the limited registry, a second pool of private lawyers, who currently can request up to $75 an hour, would be appointed the cases.
Critics say that no quality lawyers will accept the low flat fee rates, and those who do won’t devote the necessary time to defending serious cases.
The innocence commission agreed, saying that the funding system “invites ineffective assistance of counsel and wrongful convictions.”
“This Commission is convinced that these fees set by the Legislature to privately appointed counsel ... are completely inadequate,” the report said.
Jude M. Faccidomo, the president of FACDL-Miami, said the commission’s recommendation bolsters the group’s argument that the new payment system will result in the “nightmare scenario of clients being wrongfully convicted.”