Guilty until proven innocent


Published: Sunday, March 31, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, March 29, 2013 at 4:16 p.m.

Every inmate says they're innocent.

That was the first lesson that Bill Moushey taught me when I worked as his graduate assistant at the Innocence Institute of Point Park University in Pittsburgh.

Moushey, a longtime investigative reporter with a record of exposing injustice, received hundreds of letters each month from prison inmates who claimed they were innocent. Just a handful had legitimate claims that demanded further investigation.

Those cases would shake anyone's faith in the criminal justice system.

Some involved police or prosecutors who hid exculpatory evidence. There were witnesses who lied to get out of their own criminal charges. Others involved eyewitness misidentifications, false confessions and junk science.

Florida is no stranger to wrongful convictions caused by those kinds of problems. It's also home to a group, the Innocence Project of Florida, that has been fighting for a decade to free people who have been wrongfully convicted and imprisoned.

It's not simple work. While TV shows make it seem like DNA tests can be done quickly and easily, the real world doesn't work that way. Most cases don't involve DNA and, in those that do, attorneys have to battle to get tests done and admitted into cases.

“You really have to fight against the headwinds of the legal system to get justice for your client,” said Seth Miller, executive director of the Innocence Project of Florida.

His group is marking its 10th anniversary with a fundraiser Friday in Miami.

The event's special guest is Betty Anne Waters, an example of Hollywood more accurately portraying the system. Waters, whose story inspired the movie “Conviction,” spent years obtaining a college and law degree so she could prove her brother's innocence.

At the event she'll be getting an award named after Frank Lee Smith, Florida' first DNA exoneree. In one of the most profound examples of injustice, Smith died of cancer on death row 11 months before the state agreed to DNA testing that showed he didn't commit the rape and murder for which he was convicted.

Those tests showed a serial rapist and murderer committed the crime. That's the thing about wrongful convictions: They don't just destroy the lives of those convicted and their families. Police and prosecutors should want to prevent them because they mean victims and their families haven't received justice and the public can still be threatened by the real perpetrator.

“We're all trying to accomplish the same thing, which is to make sure our criminal outcomes are accurate,” Miller said.

My old boss Moushey is a reporter and not an attorney, so his Innocence Institute was about producing journalism on wrongful convictions. He always said we were only advocates for the truth.

Unfortunately he had to close down the Innocence Institute this month, after 11 years of award-winning journalism, due to a lack of financial support.

The Innocence Project of Florida is working to prevent a similar fate through its fundraising efforts. It isn't like there's a lack of work for the group in this state.

“We want to put ourselves out of a job but we don't think that's going to happen anytime soon,” Miller said.

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