By Chris Olwell
By Chris Olwell
PANAMA CITY BEACH - Now in its tenth year, the Innocence Project of Florida gets 800 requests annually from prisoners hoping the renowned truth seekers will take up their cases and prove their innocence, a representative Monday told the local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.
With a staff of seven and an annual operating budget of $600,000, the Innocence Project takes a closer look at only a small percentage of those cases, said development coordinator Jackie Pugh. But the Innocence Project has seen the release of 13 men incarcerated for crimes that DNA test conclusively prove they didn’t commit.
“It’s a noble task, and I’d like to tell you that I’m going to work myself out of a job, but I don’t think that I am,” Pugh said.
The Innocence Project’s goals are three-pronged: locate and free wrongfully convicted people through DNA evidence, help the exonerated re-enter society and prevent wrongful convictions in the future. In 2010, the Legislature providing funding for the Florida Innocence Commission, a group of attorneys, judges, lawmakers and academics, to study how wrongful convictions occur and make recommendations for preventing them.
Last year, the commission identified bad witnesses and bad confessions as causes, and recommended several steps police and prosecutors could take to decrease the possibility of putting the wrong people behind bars.
Many of the 13 men freed by the Innocence Project were implicated when witnesses identified them out of photo lineups, which police have been known to manipulate, Pugh said. The Innocence Commission recommended that the person administering a photo lineup be someone who not only doesn’t know who the suspect is but also doesn’t know if the suspect is in the lineup.
One man, [name withheld], was convicted after he confessed to several rapes and murders that he hadn’t actually committed. Why? Because he had the mental capacity of an 8-year-old, and people with the mental capacity of an 8-year-old have been known to tell authority figures what they think they want to hear, Pugh said.
That’s just one reason a suspect might confess to a crime he or she is innocent of, so the Innocence Commission also recommended that police record entire interrogations rather than just confessions.
Mike Stone, the president of the Greater Bay Area ACLU, told attendees that the United States has five percent of the world’s population but 25 percent of its prisoners.
“We have a huge number of prisoners and we don’t know how many of them are innocent,” Stone said.
At this point, the Innocence Project only takes cases where DNA evidence is present, despite the likelihood that many more inmates were wrongfully convicted in cases where DNA evidence doesn’t exist, Pugh said.
“We are looking at non-DNA cases, but right now we don’t have any in the pipeline,” Pugh said.