Thursday, March 20, 2008

Guest Shot: Wrongfully convicted dealt another blow

The following editorial was published on March 18, 2008 in the Miami Herald.

Wrongfully convicted dealt another blow

No big-time lobbyist to fix their legislation. That was their second big mistake.

The first, of course, was embarrassing the state by getting themselves convicted for someone else's crime. That's no way to make friends in Tallahassee.

The wrongfully convicted just don't know how to work the Legislature. It's as obvious as those nasty little amendments that have been inserted into a misnomer of a bill called ``Victims of Wrongful Incarceration Compensation Act.''

The legislation supposedly would award this hapless bunch $50,000 for every year spent behind bars for crimes they didn't commit. House Bill 1025 also tosses in compensation for counseling, housing, health insurance and college tuition.

That 50 grand a year, if it was real, would add up to a decent sum for the nine guys who accumulated $7,650,000 worth of hard time in Florida prisons before they were cleared by DNA tests.

It's almost as if Florida wants to do right by all those ruined lives. The legislation would finally standardize an infamously arbitrary compensation system that requires the wrongfully convicted to come begging, year after year, until some sympathetic legislators take an interest. (Freddy Lee Pitts and Wilbert Lee were pardoned in 1975 after their shoddy 1963 murder conviction was unraveled by legendary Miami Herald reporter Gene Miller. Another 23 years passed before the Legislature was shamed into voting them $500,000 each for their lost years.)

But the intent of this session's amendment-riddled legislation has evolved into a kind of punishment for these impostor convicts for taking up the precious prison cells. Under the bill wending through the Legislature (key hearings are scheduled Tuesday in both the House and Senate), none of the nine men cleared by DNA testing in Florida would actually qualify for state compensation.

Larry Bostic, wrongly convicted of a Fort Lauderdale rape, did 19 years. Orlando Boquete, convicted of a rape and robbery in the Florida Keys, served 13. Alan Crotzer spent 24 years in prison for a rape and robbery he didn't commit. Cody Davis did six months before the crime lab in Palm Beach County checked the DNA on an armed robber's ski mask. Wilton Dedge did 22 years for a Brevard County rape conviction. Luis Diaz, the so-called Bird Road Rapist of Miami-Dade County who, as it turned out, wasn't, served 25 years. Chad Heins did a 13-year stretch for rape and murder. Frank Lee Smith died after 14 years on Death Row. Both Smith and another Fort Lauderdale man, Jerry Frank Townsend, who spent 22 years in prison, had been convicted of murders actually committed by serial killer Eddie Lee Mosley.

Of the nine, only Wilton Dedge has been able to wrangle compensation out of the state Legislature ($2 million in 2005). The rest, under HB 1025 (the Senate is expected to adopt similar language) would be out of the money.

A so-called ''clean hands'' amendment disqualifies any wrongfully convicted chump with a prior, unrelated felony conviction. Of course, when cops go looking for a quickie arrest, they aren't picking their patsies from the Rotary Club.

That nifty amendment's a big money saver. A legislative report on the fiscal impact of the bill calculates, with ''very few people eligible,'' the cost would be essentially zilch.

At least the legislation doesn't charge the wrongfully convicted room and board for all those years they mooched off the state penal system.

Not yet, anyway.


Anonymous said...

VANCOUVER — In one of the largest wrongful conviction settlements awarded in Canada, the federal government has quietly paid $7 million to a British Columbia man who spent more than seven years defending his innocence for a crime he didn't commit.
In a case that has received virtually no publicity, due to a publication ban, Mahmood Somani was exonerated by the Supreme Court of Canada and acquitted of all charges against him.

Mr. Somani, wiped away tears during the hearing, and later told reporters that without his lawyer’s intervention and faith in his innocence, “I probably would have gone to my grave with that charge stuck to my record.”

The prominent Vancouver lawyer that engineered the exoneration of Mahmood Somani –convicted in 2005 for selling corporate business cards and documentation – has now demanded an independent investigation into the manner in which the police handled the initial investigation.

“There needs to be a full investigation of how the investigation was handled by the investigating officers in late 2001,” said Ravi Hira, a Queens Counsel Vancouver lawyer with the firm of Watson Goepal Maledy LLP in the Defence of the Wrongly Convicted.

The sooner we understand that and conduct a real investigation, the sooner we can clear up whether there have been more miscarriages of justice in British Columbia,” he said.

Mr. Hira said that the “lessons to be learned” from the miscarriage of justice. “When mistakes such as this are brought to the court's attention, it is imperative …that we do what we can to correct them,” Mr. Hira said.

In a submission to the court, Mr. Hira urged the judges to use their ruling to illustrate the shortcomings of evidence and eyewitness testimony. The Somani case was a “textbook example” of the problem, he said, since the only evidence was false testimony by the investigating police officer. The violation of his sworn false testimony under oath involved punishment and disgrace to Mr. Somani.

Mr. Somani has suffered a great deal of emotional distress, mental anguish, loss of reputation, pain and suffering, mental distress; worry, emotional anguish, embarrassment, humiliation, loss of enjoyment of the normal activities, benefits, and pleasures of life; loss of well-being and affection suffered by the family members as a result.
The settlement is in the same league as those awarded to other men and women who were wrongly convicted of various charges.

Mr. Somani’s settlement will be revealed in the 2008-2009 federal public accounts as a single entry under payments for the wrongly accused. The award also includes an undisclosed amount to cover legal fees.
His lawyer Mr. Hira said Mr. Somani’s settlement is one of the few largest for a wrongful conviction. "There haven't been that many altogether and this is certainly significant," Mr. Hira said.
An aggravating factor for the judge who convicted Mr. Somani was his failure to confess, a refusal that he said made his defense more difficult, because he fought with his siblings and other family members who insisted he give up the fight and come clean.
"It was a daily grind of fighting with your family members, and trying to convince people you were innocent," Mr. Somani said.

He spent much of his time reading case law, and talking to law professors trying to get them to assist with his case. Finally, a Supreme Court of Canada decision seven years later proved what he knew all along -- he was innocent.
Mr. Somani said his life has been scarred by the trials and tribulations of his case, inability to trust anyone, and it will be a while before it brings back the happiness I had before I was charged, and has left me psychologically scarred for life" he said.
Department of Justice spokesman Raymond Patrick confirmed that few applications for compensation succeed.
Others who have received compensation include:
- Richard Norris, the Brampton, Ont., man who was awarded $507,000 in 1993 after being charged for a sexual assault he didn't commit. A decade after the attack, a friend confessed to Mr. Norris that he had committed the crime;
- Norman Fox, who was charged in Vancouver for rape and related offences. He was granted a pardon in 1984 after new evidence indicated he had been mistakenly identified and he was given $275,000 in compensation;
- Wilfred Truscott, who was convicted in 1984 in Alberta for assault and mischief by causing damage to personal property. It was later discovered that the complaint had been fabricated and the Alberta government awarded him $36,000 in 1986.

Anonymous said...


Canada (Press Release) August 15, 2008 -- By Suzanna Williams
news Press Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 01,20078; Page C03

The Justice Department agreed to quietly pay Technology Business Entrepreneur Mahmood Somani a settlement valued at $7.1 million to drop a multi million dolar lawsuit he filed after being wrongfully convicted in the investigation of making corporate business cards and documentation.

The agreement, in which the government did not admit wrongdoing, after an aquittal rendered by the highest court in the country ended a seven-year legal saga. It came after months of mediation in a case that pitted investigators against the entrepreneur, who said his privacy rights and freedom operate a legitimate business licensed by the City of Vancouver had been violated in the race to shut down his operation.

Somani, who operated numerous international businesses, has always maintained his innocence. He said information that a dirty cop supplied to the government in order to receive a promotion resulted in the closure of several businesses, and cost him hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees, and any chance of employment.

"I don't think anyone would believe the government would . . pay that kind of money unless they felt there was significant exposure at trial," said Ravi Hira, the prominent vancouver defense lawyer who represented Mr. Somani in the case.

Somani's lawyer blasted government officials and the investigation department as unfairly tarring his client in a statement that was released moments after the settlement was filed with the Supreme Court.

Under the terms of the deal, the Justice Department agreed to give Somani, a lump sum of $7.1 million.

The case also focused on law enforcement agents, in hot pursuit of leads in the case.

Former National Post staff writier Suzanna Williams was one of reporters who were deposed in connection with the lawsuit. Williams confirmed the identities of two sources after they had identified themselves to Somani's lawyers and released him from his promise of confidentiality.