A new policy initiated by the Florida Innocence Commission aims to help end wrongful convictions in the state that leads the nation in wrongful death sentences. In a new set of standards that went into effect November 1, Florida law enforcement investigators are mandated to electronically record custodial interrogations of suspects in cases of serious felonies.
“There’s an old cliché that a trial is a search for truth,” Judge Belvin Perry, who is chair of the commission, told the Florida Bar News. “Jurors not only want it, they expect it, and when they con’t get it, it causes a lot of them to hang up on this thing of reasonable doubt. They often wonder, when they can reach into their pockets and pull out their iPhones or Android phones…they can videotape. They can record. When they can go online and buy the same equipment to record items inexpensively, they wonder why law enforcement does not do it.”
The commission, created by the Florida Supreme Court in July of this year, is made up of judges, prosecutors, public defenders, state representatives and members of law enforcement and was founded to examine the causes of wrongful convictions in Florida. The state has the unpleasant honor of leading the nation in wrongful death sentences. The commission has been examining everything from false confessions to witness misidentification and will examine the use of jailhouse snitches in their next meeting. Once the commission members have examined the evidence and data on each subject and heard from experts, their job is to make recommendations to the Florida legislature in order to reduce the number of wrongful convictions.
The mandate to record interrogations sprang from a debate about the best way to prevent false confessions, which are more prevalent than many would think. The mandate passed by a vote of 12 to 7. Members of law enforcement voted against the measure, saying the consequences for not recording interrogations, which are cautionary instructions to the jury advising them about the circumstances of the confession, should be decided on a case-by-case basis and not mandated by legislation. Others voted against it because they thought the consequences should be even stronger and that the defendant’s statement should be inadmissible in court if it is not recorded.
“Why not say to a police agency — if they can’t say they had good cause not to record that statement, that it wasn’t in a location where it was appropriate to do so, that the suspect said he didn’t want it recorded or there was equipment failure — why not say you can’t use the statement?” said University of Florida law professor Kenneth Nunn in the Florida Bar News. “To me, that seems to be the biggest sanction you can have.”
Charlotte County Sheriff Bill Cameron was one of the law enforcement members against the measure.
“The most recent research I read said less than one half of 1 percent of all convictions involves a false confession…I don’t believe in killing a fly with a sledgehammer.”
Sen. Joe Negron, R-Palm City, responded: “The law enforcement community was opposed to making any changes in statute when it involved 75 percent of wrongful convictions. I am with Professor Nunn. This doesn’t go far enough.”