Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Prosecutors belong on side of justice

The following opinion by Tom Lyons was published in the Sarasota (Florida) Herald-Tribune on April 4, 2011.

Prosecutors can be way too much like other trial lawyers in one way that they are not supposed to be.

It's one thing for defense lawyers to argue adamantly that a client is innocent, despite much evidence of guilt. That's their job.

But prosecutors? They are supposed to be on the side of justice. To insist that a defendant is guilty even after new and strong evidence suggests otherwise, is flat out wrong.

Their job, in such an instance, is to drop the charges. Or, if things are past that point, to help reverse a wrongful conviction. It is absolutely not our State Attorney's job to try to keep an apparently innocent person locked up just because that person had once appeared to be guilty.

But prosecutors can become way too focused on winning, it seems.

Defense attorney Derek Byrd called me last week to express outrage about a decision by State Attorney Earl Moreland's office to appeal a judge's ruling that overturned the rape conviction of Derrick Williams based on new DNA evidence.

"I've never been as disappointed" in the State Attorney's Office, said Byrd, a respected defense attorney known for a good working relationship with that office. "There's no basis for an appeal."

He's right. It was not an iffy ruling based on a debatable technicality. Strong evidence, revealed through efforts of lawyers with Florida's Innocence Project, proved that DNA on a shirt worn by the man who raped a Palmetto woman absolutely did not come from Williams, who has spent 18 years in prison on that charge.

A DNA expert testified just days ago that it was highly unlikely that Williams could have worn that shirt and not left his DNA on it. The rapist, it now seems, probably was another black man who looked enough like Williams that the white victim picked Williams' photo out of a book and said she thought he was the man. Even though Williams lacked the scar she said she saw on the rapist's belly, she stood by her identification and a jury convicted Williams.

Research shows that inter-racial misidentification by victims or witnesses is amazingly frequent, even more so than when both are the same race, which is also common. And there was never much else to go on in this case.

Last week a judge overturned Williams' conviction after ruling the DNA evidence would likely have made for a different verdict had the jury had it. And rightly so, given that the DNA facts make his guilt seem not just doubtful, but quite unlikely.

But Moreland and his team failed to admit that. Instead, they prepared to compound what looks like an 18-year injustice with an appeal that, no matter how baseless, would likely have kept the man in prison for months longer.

Moreland, according to Innocence Project director Seth Miller, was set to become the first prosecutor to appeal such a clear-cut, DNA based ruling.

Byrd, who had donated his time to help the Innocence Project present the DNA evidence, and dozens of other defense lawyers who were not involved in the case at all, planned to show up in court today to protest that appeal. But I'm happy to report it was not necessary because whatever made prosecutors lose their good sense — and all sense of fairness — the embarrassing publicity seems to have led them to rethink it.

On Friday afternoon, Moreland returned my call and told me the appeal decision had been too hastily made.

"We were premature," he admitted, and he added that he was reconsidering because he could see no basis for filing it.

Sanity prevailed Monday when Moreland announced that not only would no appeal be filed, but that he also would drop all charges.

The decision shouldn't have been so hard.

Tom Lyons can be contacted at or (941) 361-49

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