A new kind of prosecutor helps overturn wrongful convictions

Innocence Project and State Attorney's Office collaborate on 2019 exonerations

Dean McKee, walking free with attorney Seth Miller, was exonerated after being imprisoned for 30 years on a murder charge. Photo: Innocence Project of Florida

Seventy-two people who have collectively served hundreds of years behind bars in Florida for crimes such as sexual assault and murder have something vitally important in common.

They didn’t do it.

They include 29 who languished on Death Row, sentenced to execution for murders they did not commit.

The Innocence Project of Florida helped exonerate these 20 men with DNA evidence that proved they were wrongfully convicted. Frank Lee Smith, in glasses, died of disease on Death Row before his exoneration was finalized.

Twenty of the 72 were exonerated by way of incontrovertible DNA evidence, with the help of the Innocence Project of Florida. All were victims of errors including misidentification, false accusation, false confession, inadequate legal defense, and even official misconduct. So says the National Registry of Exonerations, a database dating to 1989.

Before DNA testing made it easier to prove innocence or guilt, wrongful convictions were hardly rare. But the times are slowly changing – not just because of DNA evidence, but also because of increasing awareness that mistakes happen, official misconduct occurs, and that putting innocent men and women behind bars is inhumane and leaves guilty killers and sexual predators roaming free.

This year, the Innocence Project of Florida helped three men clear their names and leave Florida prisons after being locked up for nearly 100 years, combined, on wrongful murder convictions. They are Nathan Myers and his nephew Clifford Williams, imprisoned for 43 years each, and Dean McKee, imprisoned for 30.

For Myers and Williams, a new generation of prosecutors helped set them free.

State Attorney Melissa Nelson created Florida’s first conviction integrity review unit.

Fourth Judicial Circuit State Attorney Melissa Nelson, who was a child in 1976 when Myers and Williams were convicted, established Florida’s first conviction integrity review unit in her Jacksonville office last year. Its investigators, directed by Shelley Thibodeau, unraveled the case against Myers and Williams and set them free.

The investigators found the men had been wrongfully convicted on eyewitness testimony despite ample available evidence that they were nowhere near the scene of the murder.

“As prosecutors, we have a continuing postconviction ethical obligation to pursue justice when we become aware of material evidence suggesting a conviction is not correct,” Nelson said in announcing the exonerations in March.

Three additional conviction integrity review units have opened since then, in the 9th, 13th, and 17th judicial circuits, based in Orlando, Tampa, and Fort Lauderdale, respectively.

Clifford Williams and his uncle Nathan Myers were cleared of wrongful murder convictions this year with the help of Seth Miller (in background, with beard), executive director of Innocence Project of Florida.

“I’m so proud that Florida is taking these steps forward,” said Seth Miller, executive director of the Innocence Project of Florida, where he has been fighting wrongful convictions for 15 years. “It won’t eradicate wrongful convictions, but it’s my hope we’ll diminish them.”

Lawmakers advocating criminal-justice reform for the sake of justice and cost savings also are pushing Florida forward. Reform legislation proposed for the 2020 session includes bills to mandate electronic recording of interrogations – designed to prevent false and coerced confessions – and to expand eligibility for state compensation for wrongful convictions.

Dean McKee greets his family after being exonerated this year. He was imprisoned for 30 years. Photo: Innocence Project of Florida

Of the 72 exonerations in Florida since 1989, Florida has compensated only four people for their wrongful convictions.

“In addition to the hopelessness of life in prison as an innocent person, the wrongfully convicted spend countless holidays and birthdays behind bars. They watch careers and opportunities fade away and families torn apart. Children grow up, parents pass away. Mr. Williams’ mother passed away while he was on death row,” Miller wrote in an essay he published when Williams and Myers were freed.

Just this year, 120 people have been exonerated nationwide, according to the National Registry of Exonerations, a database maintained by the University of California Irvine Newkirk Center for Science and Society and by law schools at the University of Michigan and Michigan State. Since 1989, the registry has recorded 2,532 exonerations nationwide, representing more than 22,000 years of stolen time for the exonerees.