Lawyers Petition for New Panel; Innocence Commission Would Develop Reforms to Reduce Wrongful Convictions

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Byline: PAUL PINKHAM

Sixty-seven Florida lawyers have petitioned the state Supreme Court to form a commission to suggest ways to reduce wrongful convictions, including retired justices, former Bar presidents and a handful of Jacksonville attorneys.

The petition, filed Friday in Tallahassee by former Florida State University President Talbot D'Alemberte, asks the court to create the Florida Actual Innocence Commission. It would investigate circumstances of cases where innocence has been demonstrated and develop recommendations for reforms.

The petition cites 11 individuals it says were wrongfully convicted in Florida courts, including Chad Heins, who spent 13 years in prison for murdering his sister-in-law in Mayport. He was released in 2007 based on new DNA tests, though Duval County prosecutors stopped short of exonerating him and could re-indict him if new evidence comes to light.

Among the attorneys who signed the petition was former State Attorney Harry Shorstein, a potential U.S. attorney nominee whose office prosecuted Heins. Shorstein said he struggled with whether to sign because of his concerns about cases like Heins that aren't true exonerations.

Despite those misgivings, Shorstein said he thinks a review of wrongful convictions can only help the criminal justice system.

"I ultimately signed on because I believe it's the correct ethical and moral thing to do," he said. "I really couldn't think of a reason to oppose further review. It's important to do everything we can to increase the credibility of the judicial system."

Other Jacksonville signers include John Mills, Buddy Schulz and former Florida Bar President Hank Coxe. Former Justices Harry Lee Anstead, Arthur England and Gerald Kogan also signed the petition, which seeks to model the commission after a North Carolina panel.

"It brought all players to the table, [including] every conceivable part of law enforcement, the judiciary, laboratory people," Coxe said of the North Carolina commission. A half dozen other states have similar commissions.

North Carolina also became the only state to establish an agency to assess innocence claims. …