Panel's Job: Explain How Justice Failed in Lives of 12; the Florida Innocence Commission Will Study Wrongful Convictions to Prevent More Life-Altering Mistakes

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Byline: KATE HOWARD

The 12 people wrongly convicted and later freed by DNA in Florida have much in common beyond their lost years in prison.

Most were pointed to as the criminal by eyewitnesses who were mistaken or misled. Some never saw the evidence that should've cast serious doubts on their involvement. All had to ask - sometimes repeatedly - for the DNA testing that would eventually prove their innocence.

A new commission will examine these mistakes in the hopes that wrongful convictions can become a thing of the past. Two Jacksonville lawyers have been named to the 23-member Florida Innocence Commission, created this month for a two-year term by the Florida Supreme Court. The work will begin this fall; its first round of suggested reforms will be issued next summer.

Commission members will not be sifting through cases of prisoners claiming innocence. Instead, the focus will be on dissecting the cases of Florida's 12 known exonerees and figuring out what went wrong. Members and advocates for the panel say they expect faulty witness identification, problems with jailhouse informants and unreliable science to rise to the top of the list of problems, but they're keeping their minds open.

"Our first interest will be that everyone around the table genuinely appreciates that we all share an interest in preventing the travesties that come from convicting the innocent," said Hank Coxe, former president of The Florida Bar and a Jacksonville criminal defense attorney on the commission. "When all people share that common interest is when the serious work will begin."

Howard Coker, another former Bar president and a Jacksonville personal injury attorney who was also appointed to the commission, said it's premature to say what they'll find but he's committed to exploring every avenue that could mean a more just system.

"For me, the field is wide open," Coker said. "Anything that helps make sure an innocent person isn't incarcerated is worth considering."

JACKSONVILLE CASE IS ONE OF 12

The majority of Florida's exonerees were imprisoned after convictions for murder or sex crimes. The only Jacksonville case so far is that of Chad Heins, who spent 13 years in prison for the murder of his sister-in-law in Mayport. He was sleeping in the apartment when she was killed, but another man's DNA was found on the bed and her body. Heins was cleared in 2007 after DNA testing, although prosecutors stopped short of agreeing he was innocent.

The impact on the exonerees has been severe, former Florida State University President Talbot "Sandy" D'Alemberte said. He led the charge for a commission in Florida, modeled after a successful commission in North Carolina and has worked to get compensation for two of Florida's exonerees. …