Florida’s Hidden Hand in Wrongful Convictions

by jerry n. alfred

A wrongful conviction is a conviction obtained through a violation of a person’s rights under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. For example, a due process violation occurs where a State’s Attorney Office withholds evidence favorable to the defense. When one is uncovered a person who was wrongfully convicted will have her or his conviction overturned – assuming, of course, it is found “sufficiently” prejudicial after an evidentiary hearing where the State’s Attorney Office, paradoxically enough, will argue it was harmless – and sentence vacated. The State’s Attorney Office? Its “punishment” is to be afforded the option of either allowing the person who it had wrongfully convicted to go free or retrying her or him on the original offense.

At a glance, most people could see at least two rather conspicuous flaws in this Picasso. First, as much as redressing an egregious injustice, as outlined above, could as easily be seen as perpetrating one considering the State’s Attorney Office gets off with the proverbial slap on the wrist. Second, owing to the lightness of its “punishment”, it could be seen as creating a moral hazard: when in possession of a folding hand, the State’s Attorney Office would deliberately withhold favorable evidence from the defense so as to obtain an otherwise unlikely conviction in order to “get time” out of a person who would have likely gone free.
Clear as these flaws are, there are some who nonetheless are thoroughly incapable of seeing them.
For the culturally myopic, there is absolutely nothing wrong with this picture. For them, any “punishment” meted out to the State’s Attorney Office that exceeded a mere reset – for instance, reducing the original offense by one degree – of a case for a due process violation would constitute a flaw giving a “criminal”, never mind the presumption of innocence, an undue windfall. As to the moral hazard flaw, the potential adverse consequences, they would argue, to a prosecutor’s career aspirations would stop her or him from engaging in such unethical conduct. So, from their perspectives, the second flaw, as the first flaw, is merely illustory.
Were either of these points valid, then the contention that the conspicuous flaws are merely illusory would be true, but neither of them is. The logic underpinning the first is so absurd that it merits summary rejection; whereas, that underpinning the second, though reasonable enough, begs the question: is the possibility of getting caught high enough to persuade a prosecutor to forgo the risk? The answer to this sixty-four-thousand-dollar question is a resounding no and this is where Florida’s hidden hands come in.
In order to uncover a due process violation, an imprisoned person, generally, must gain access to criminal investigative files of either the State’s Attorney Office or law enforcement agencies for her or his case. Gaining access to them is a three-step process: first, she or he must make a public record request under the Florida Public Records Act to either entity; second, upon receiving the public records request, the custodian of records for the particular entity will prepare and thereafter foward a cost estimate for the criminal investigative file which is being sought; finally, once the imprisoned person forks over the estimated amount, the file will be promptly forwarded to her or him.
Now, while the first and second steps are automatic, the third step is much less so. The reason is the vast majority of people who are in prison is indigent. Arguably, no one knows this better than prosecutors in courtrooms throughout the state who witness accused offenders being adjudged indigent and appointed defense attorneys countless times in the course of their work days. Armed with this knowledge and the knowledge that the Florida Public Records Act lacks a mechanism whereby indigent imprisoned persons could gain access to their criminal investigative files without prepayment by imposing liens on their prison trust accounts, far too many overzealous prosecutors are willing to take the risk . . . one that they would have otherwise foregone had the Florida Public Records Act made accommodations for imprisoned persons’ financial realities.

In a country that lauds the fairness of its legal system, the fact that the legislature and judiciary of a state would aid and abet in the wrongful deprivation of people’s liberty is an indictment and suggests only lip service is being paid to justice.

Jerry N. Alfred is an Iguana reader currently residing in Santa Rosa State Prison.

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