Trying to Define Innocence

One of the main issues I’ve come across so far in my examination of Florida’s death penalty system is the fact that Florida leads the nation in death row exonerees. I want to zone in on this issue for part of my project, so I’ve been trying to crunch the numbers to determine exactly how many have been exonerated and how. But like many facets of this thesis, that is proving more tricky than I anticipated.

The Death Penalty Information Center‘s list of exonerees Florida leading the nation at 23. But there are certain criteria that must be met for being deemed “exonerated:”

Defendants must have been convicted, sentenced to death and subsequently either:

  1. Their conviction was overturned and they were acquitted at re-trial
  2. Their conviction was overturned and all charges were dropped
  3. OR they were given an absolute pardon by the governor based on new evidence of innocence.

So there are 23 people from Florida’s death row who meet these requirements. But what about those that do not? There are many cases of people who escaped Florida’s death row in cases similar to what recently happened in Arkansas with the West Memphis 3. There is evidence to suggest the inmate’s innocence, so rather than dealing with the costs and publicity of a lengthy trial and risk a possible acquittal, the state agrees to release them on time served if they cop to a lesser charge. For some, the chance to escape almost certain death is worth pleading to the charges. This was exactly the case for people like Sonia Jacobs, William Jent and Ernest Miller. Here’s a quick description of the Jent and Miller case:

William Jent and his stepbrother, Earnest Miller, were sentenced to death for the rape and murder of an unidentified woman whose badly burned body was found in a Pasco County, Florida, game preserve. The convictions rested on the testimony of two purported eyewitnesses who claimed they saw the defendants beat the woman until she collapsed, put her into the trunk of a car, drive to a game preserve, and set the body afire. The convictions were twice affirmed by the Florida Supreme Court, and the defendants came within 16 hours of execution in 1983 before winning a stay from a federal judge because the prosecution had withheld exculpatory information. In 1986, the victim finally was identified and it was determined that her death occurred at a different time than the eyewitnesses had contended. The defendants had a solid alibi. Moreover, it turned out, the victim’s former boyfriend had been convicted in Georgia of an eerily similar crime. A new trial was then ordered, but prosecutors refused to drop the charges. In 1988, the defendants pled guilty to second-degree murder in order to be released immediately from prison. Once free, however, they repudiated the pleas. The original witnesses subsequently made statements indicating that they had been coerced by sheriff’s officers to fabricate the story presented at trial.

There’s a number of cases like the one above and I’m uncertain how to categorize these cases, in which people were sent to death row and were released without being “exonerated.” If these cases are included, Florida’s status in terms of wrongful convictions could get a lot worse.

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