A Shadow of Doubt: Protecting the Innocent

Watch video to learn more about the Innocence Initiative at Stetson Law.

Imagine yourself waking up one morning on a metal bed tray in an 8-foot by 6-foot prison cell, facing a concrete block wall and a small stainless steel toilet. If you’re lucky, you have a barred window. Now, imagine repeating this scene for more than 12,000 days. Every day, you realize that you are behind bars for a crime you did not commit. It is a more common nightmare than you might imagine.

James Bain spent 35 years in prison for a heinous crime, and he continuously proclaimed his innocence. In December 2009, he was freed through the help of the 10th Judicial Circuit Public Defender’s office and a student intern from Stetson University College of Law.

Tonmiel Rodriguez JD ’10 interned with the public defender during the summer of 2009, helping to locate vital physical evidence in the Bain case. After spending more than three decades in prison for the rape of a nine-year-old boy, James Bain woke up one morning to learn that his quest for a new DNA evaluation of physical evidence was granted. Imprisoned in 1974, Bain became the longest-serving prisoner to be exonerated by DNA evidence in U.S. history.

Bain’s release shines a bright light in a dark corner. The justice system ultimately worked. Still, for every James Bain, there is potentially an innocent person who will wake up tomorrow in prison. This person may be facing life in prison, or even death by execution. Who is working on behalf of the innocent people living the nightmare of imprisonment every day?

“The most surprising thing to me has been how quickly and whole-heartedly my fellow students have joined the fight against this injustice,” said law student Gabe Neibergall.
Last fall, Stetson Law students and a group of attorney mentors began assisting the Innocence Project of Florida with an overflow of case files. In the next six months, the group hopes to identify the most promising cases and submit them as candidates for reevaluation.

The Innocence Initiative at Stetson has grown this fall to include more than 60 students working with 14 Tampa Bay attorneys and a former judge. The Innocence Initiative has expanded into three divisions. One group works on case files, another targets outreach and education, and yet another conducts research and analyzes reform.

The students have been working closely with volunteer attorney mentors who walk them through every phase of examining cases, from trial to post-conviction. Students sharpen their legal writing skills, hone their research skills reviewing case law, and network with the legal community.

Karly Hughs, a member of the Innocence Initiative and Stetson’s Moot Court Board, said students learn how to work on teams while managing case files, which is similar to working in a real law firm.

Working with the project, Hughs said students develop their skills as advocates by learning about police interrogation tactics, false confessions, line-up identification problems and racial discrimination. She explained that while law school teaches students the rules, working with the Innocence Initiative teaches students about what happens when the rules are broken.
The Innocence Initiative at Stetson also works to educate the student body on wrongful conviction issues through a combination of presentations, meetings, film screenings and a newsletter written by the students.

In November, the Innocence Initiative meeting featured a rousing discussion about informant testimony and other systemic problems. “Part of our effort is to get students involved,” student Javier Centonzio said.

Lester A. Garringer, Jr., executive director of the newly formed Innocence Commission, took notice of the work of the Innocence Initiative at Stetson and met with students and faculty to ask for help researching the root of wrongful convictions.

“Working with the Innocence Commission is a wonderful opportunity for Stetson students to learn that effective advocacy does not just occur in the courtroom, but also in the halls of power where laws can be created to protect the innocent,” said Roberta Flowers, Wm. Reece Smith Jr. Distinguished Professor who co-directs the Innocence Initiative at Stetson.

Students are conducting research for the Innocence Commission on the primary causes of wrongful conviction, including false confessions, invalid scientific evidence and jailhouse snitches. Ultimately, the student researchers will help make recommendations to the government on how to correct systemic problems.
“I am proud to be a part of a network of students, attorneys, and community activists that place justice at the top of its legal agenda by providing hope and assistance to the wrongfully convicted,” Innocence Initiative co-director Professor Judith Scully said. “This is a unique opportunity for our law students to influence policy and reform. Our students are on the cutting edge of this movement in the state of Florida.”

By Brandi Palmer