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State Attorney's Office relaunches website for Conviction Review Unit following popular Netflix show

Posted at 1:45 PM, May 13, 2020
and last updated 2020-05-13 23:21:01-04

HILLSBOROUGH COUNTY, Fla. — The State Attorney's Office is calling on people binge watching Netflix. They're hoping the popularity of the show "The Innocence Files" will help shine a light on their own Conviction Review Unit.

It was created with the goal of eliminating wrongful convictions in the Hillsborough County area in 2018. Wednesday, the office re-launched its own website, InnocenceFilesTampa.com to simplify the process of submitting a case for review.

"If people are sitting at home, watching tv and thinking I know someone or I believe someone who’s wrongfully convicted in Hillsborough County we want them to know exactly how to contact our office," said Hillsborough state attorney Andrew Warren.

Since 2018, Warren said the unit has reviewed nearly 177 cases, but of the complete reviews, hasn't found any wrongful convictions. After a review of nearly 225 cases stemming from discredited law enforcement officers, Warren said they identified 17 convictions they lost faith in.

The purpose of the Conviction Review Unit (CRU) is to identify, remedy and prevent wrongful convictions. It can also confirm a conviction was correct.

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"Our obligation to seek justice never ends punishing the innocent is contrary to the very fiber of our system," said Andrew Warren, Hillsborough state attorney.

The unit was one of the first few to launch in Florida.

"I’m hoping by this new website we’ll get even more inquiries," said the unit's supervising attorney, Teresa Hall.

Her job is solely focused on reviewing cases. First, a submission is screened for a plausible case of innocence in Hillsborough County. Then she starts reviewing, going through case files, documents, re-interviewing witnesses, talking to any new witnesses and re-examining evidence. She submits her findings and recommendations to an independent review panel compromised of three former judges. The panel submits their own recommendation as well to Warren for a decision.

"We don’t leave any stone unturned," said Hall.

The process can bring prosecutors and defenders to the same side.

"We’re able to cut through those procedural problems and just look at is this person innocent has there been a miscarriage of justice what are we going to do about it and move into court together," said Seth Miller, the executive director of the Innocence Project of Florida, "And that is something new and different."

Miller said last year there were 143 exonerations across the country cataloged by the National Registry of Exonerations, with 55 of those by a conviction integrity unit.

"It’s given us a different innovative model to go about finding collaborative justice that allows us to get to righting wrongful convictions fixing miscarriages of justice more quickly," he said.

Waiting on an appeal is a process Herman Lindsey knows well.

"This adds to it to give it a little more peace of mind because now we don’t just depend on the appeals courts," he said.

Lindsey is an exoneree. He was a former inmate on Florida's death row, convicted of murder based on circumstantial evidence. The Florida Supreme Court overturned the conviction. He now serves as a board member for Witness to Innocence.

"You think there’s no way you can get found guilty, I didn’t do this there’s no way and when the guilty verdict come I mean for me I went into like a shock like I couldn’t believe it like how did this happen to me I didn’t do it but nobody’s hearing my cry that I was innocent," he said.

The conviction review unit is one he's glad to see.

"I think it’s an amazing thing because when you’re wrongfully convicted it’s hard to believe in the same justice system that has convicted you is gonna find that you’re innocent," Lindsey said.

Anyone can submit a petition if you would like the claim to be reviewed.

For more information, click here.