Here's an astonishing statistic: An estimated six percent of incarcerated people in the Florida state prison system were wrongly convicted and are innocent of the crimes for which they are in prison, according to a study by the Journal of Quantitative Criminology.
That's why an organization like The Innocence Project of Florida is so necessary and why the Atlantic Cares program chose the group for its July donation.
“The Innocence Project exists to free wrongly convicted individuals by using DNA technology and other newer advances in forensic science.,” explained Rob Hooper, CEO of Atlantic Logistics. “They have successfully freed or exonerated more than 200 people nationally. It’s incumbent on us to do everything possible to make sure that innocents are not wrongly imprisoned – it’s very important for a properly functioning judicial system.”
“I can’t imagine being imprisoned for something I did not do,” Hooper added. “It’s imperative that we do everything we can to make sure such individuals receive every opportunity to prove their innocence and be freed if wrongly convicted.”
The Florida organization – statewide but headquartered in Tallahassee – began in 2003, growing out of the Florida State University Law School and eventually becoming a separate nonprofit currently led by Executive Director Seth Miller. They process more than a thousand requests from inmates and their families annually and are involved in more than three dozen legal challenges here in Florida.
Freeing wrongly convicted prisoners is not all that the project does, however. “We help them and their families transition to life after incarceration,” said Jessica Bivens, Development Officer. “Plus, our social services don’t ever really end. We have people who have gotten out, and it’s been ten years, but they lost their job. So, they reach out again and we help them gain new skills. It’s a lifelong process.”
Bivens does the fundraising for the Innocence Project, which has a budget of more than a million dollars, sixty percent of which comes from individual giving and forty percent is furnished by grants.
“Everything we raise basically goes to the legal fight, transitions out of prison and salaries. We are one of the only places that has a social worker on our staff, so a lot of funds are used to help people transition to life outside of prison. We have two lawyers who work pro bono, so we also need funds to support their travel,” Bivens said.
The hardest part of the job, Bivens says, is realizing how easy it is to put someone in prison wrongfully and how difficult it is to get someone out of prison who was wrongfully convicted.
“It’s really rewarding when you get to see people walk out, though,” she added. “A lot of them are married and have children and are now living lives they wouldn’t have had otherwise.”
In addition to freeing people who have already been convicted, the Innocence Project tries to change laws and police practices to prevent future wrongful convictions.
“One of the things we were able to do is to get the legislature to pass a law that requires a double-blind witness lineup,” Bivens said. By having both the police and witnesses pick people out of a lineup, there are fewer false identifications.
It’s a common practice to ask witnesses to identify suspects from photo lineups, which are usually conducted by the officers investigating a crime, but scientific studies on memory and identification demonstrate that witnesses can be influenced, intentionally or not, by the person conducting the lineup. This has led the scientific community to recommend “blind” lineups, which means the officer conducting the lineup isn’t aware of the suspect’s identity, so he or she can’t influence the identification procedure.
“We’ve also been trying to get the Clean Hands provision overturned,” Bivens added.
Florida passed a law to give monetary damages to wrongfully convicted people, but the law’s “Clean Hands” provision excludes convicts who previously had committed a felony before they were wrongfully convicted of a separate charge. The Innocence Project continues to fight that legal provision.
To learn more about the Innocence Project of Florida, go to floridainnocence.org.
You can donate online, anonymously if you wish.
You can also donate by mailing your donation to:
Innocence Project of Florida, Inc.
1100 East Park Avenue
Tallahassee, FL 32301
Main Photo Caption: William Dillon was freed from prison after 27 years when post conviction DNA testing demonstrated his actual innocence of a 1981 murder.
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