By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org
“Broward State Attorney Michael J. Satz recognizes that prosecutors have a continuing post-conviction ethical obligation to seek justice. No one benefits when an innocent person is convicted and the real offender is not held accountable.”
After 44 years in office, and a record pockmarked by some of the nation’s most infamous miscarriages of justice, Satz has invoked those noble words to introduce his new Conviction Review Unit.
In establishing a CRU that works to ensure the integrity of its convictions, Satz’s office is late to the game. The first such unit was established in Dallas in 2007 and the first in Florida were set up last year in Jacksonville, Tampa and Orlando. Forty-four others, often called Conviction Integrity Units, have sprung up across the country, most in large prosecutors’ offices. Through 2018, those units have been involved in 325 exonerations, according to information provided by the National Registry of Exonerations at the University of California Irvine in coordination with two other universities.
The National Registry defines Conviction Integrity Units as “long-term operations that work to prevent, identify and remedy false convictions.” Satz’s CRU, however, doesn’t mention trying to prevent wrongful convictions as a goal. In fact, on its list of Frequently Asked Questions, a list that’s also used by the state attorney for the 13th Judicial Circuit in Tampa, Satz deleted this sentence: “Additionally, the CRU seeks to reduce wrongful convictions by working with prosecutors to recognize and avoid mistakes that are common to them.”
Felons in or out of prison who believe they were wrongly convicted can apply online for a review of their case. They must wait until all appeals and post-conviction motions have been ruled on, and no litigation is pending, before the CRU will consider whether they have a “plausible claim of innocence” or new evidence. That could take years.
Conviction Review Units not ‘panacea’
The National Registry called CRUs “a positive development,” but not a “panacea.”
“Prosecutors who take on the task of reviewing convictions obtained by their own colleagues and predecessors may find it difficult to be objective and thorough. Particular units have been criticized as mere window dressing, or public relations ploys,” says a National Registry report from 2016.
Satz has said he won’t run again next year when his term expires.
Fort Lauderdale civil rights attorney Barbara Heyer represented Jerry Frank Townsend and Anthony Caravella, who were exonerated of high-profile murder convictions obtained decades before by Satz’s prosecutors. She has been a critic of Satz, but is optimistic about his new unit.
“I can work with this, I think,” Heyer said. “As long as we’ve got the ability to really look at these cases, then I think it’s a real step in the right direction.”
The CRU will employ “independent review panels, composed of outside legal experts and members of the community, to aid the review process during and at the conclusion of investigations,” according to an office press release. The rotating panels will make recommendations and issue a report regarding claims of innocence.
Satz has the final say
The final say on whether to exonerate will be with Satz or his elected successors. If a person is found to be innocent, the State Attorney’s Office would file a motion to vacate the conviction in court, said Satz’s spokeswoman Paula McMahon.
To date, 16 people have applied to serve on those panels, McMahon said. No panels have been assembled so far, however, because no investigations have been completed. Two cases are under an initial review by the unit led by Assistant State Attorney Arielle Demby Berger.
According to the National Registry, exonerated defendants lost a record number of years to prison last year: 1,639 years, or an average of 10.9 years per exoneree. The total number of years lost to all of the innocent criminal defendants who have been exonerated since 1989 exceeds 21,000.
A major cause of wrongful convictions is official misconduct by police or prosecutors. In 2018, official misconduct occurred in at least 107 exonerations, including 54 homicides.
Still, few members of law enforcement implicated in such wrongdoing ever face the prospect of a criminal investigation, much less charges.
‘What happens to the cops?’
“When you see cops that are framing people in individual cases or coercing confessions improperly, most of the time that stuff, when it comes out, the prosecutors will say we will vacate,” said Maurice Possley, a senior researcher at the National Registry. “What happens to the cops? Not so much.”
A clear example is the case of Jerry Frank Townsend, a grown man with the mental capacity of a child who confessed to nearly two dozen sex murders. He was convicted of six murders and a rape in 1980 and sent to prison for life.
Townsend remained behind bars for 22 years, until he was exonerated by DNA tests that didn’t exist when he was arrested. Satz asked the court to set aside Townsend’s convictions after the DNA tests cleared him, but conducted no criminal investigation of the police whose testimony sent Townsend to prison. A Satz spokesman at the time said prosecutors reviewed the case “even before the DNA testing” but didn’t find “any evidence to suggest” a frame-up.
Florida Bulldog’s first story in October 2009 reviewed the Townsend case and detailed “a disturbing record replete with clear and convincing evidence of specific crimes by BSO [Broward Sheriff’s Office] detectives and other officers, including perjury and the falsification of police reports.”
In Florida, there is no statute of limitations on perjury in an official proceeding that relates to the prosecution of a capital felony. Still, no official investigation was ever done.