Amid COVID-19 fears, long-imprisoned man likely to be exonerated is set free

Seth Miller, director of the Innocence Project of Florida, speaks at the Capitol earlier this year about wrongful incarcerations. With him, from left, are state Reps. Anika Omphroy and Kimberly Daniels, who supported a compensation claim for Clifford Williams, seated at right, who was wrongfully imprisoned for 43 years. Miller said it is urgent to release inmates with credible claims of innocence who risk becoming infected with COVID-19. Photo: Danielle Brown

Leonard Cure, sentenced to life in prison for a robbery he probably did not commit, will go free after being imprisoned for 16 years because a state attorney’s conviction review unit believes further investigation will fully exonerate him.

With COVID-19 spreading among inmates being held in close quarters, the Innocence Project of Florida and the conviction review unit of the 17th Judicial Circuit State Attorney’s Office in Broward County recommended that Cure be freed as soon as possible from Sumter Correctional Institution.

As of Monday two employees and one inmate at that state prison had confirmed cases of the disease, caused by the new coronavirus, according to the Florida Department of Corrections.

Court records show that Circuit Judge John Murphy III agreed that the conviction appears flawed and reduced Cure’s sentence to time served: 16 years of a life sentence.

“Achieving freedom for Mr. Cure during this global pandemic, despite the limitations on our movement and activity in the courts, is a testament to the Broward State Attorney’s Office’s collaborative approach and [the Innocence Project]’s unwavering commitment to achieving justice for our clients,” said Seth Miller, executive director of the Innocence Project of Florida, in announcing Cure’s release.

Lead attorney Arielle Demby Berger founded the conviction review unit in the office of State Attorney Michael Satz. Case records show she learned of Cure’s claims of innocence in December and launched an investigation. Her findings cast doubt on the conviction.

Demby Berger found a dearth of physical and scientific evidence, including that Cure had an alibi placing him three miles away from the crimes for which he was convicted: robbery and aggravated assault at a Walgreens in Dania in 2003. She surmised his conviction was largely based on a misidentification.

“It is in the best interest of justice to release Mr. Cure as soon as possible. This will allow him to be released while we can thoroughly review his case,” Demby Berger wrote to the court.

During her review of the conviction, Demby Berger sought the assistance of attorneys at the Innocence Project, bringing Miller and staff attorney Krista Nolan into the case.

Conviction review units, also called conviction integrity review units, are a recent development in Florida’s criminal justice system. The first was created by 4th Judicial State Attorney Melissa Nelson in 2018, in response to numerous findings by the Innocence Project and other investigators that innocent people are behind bars because of wrongful convictions.

Last year, Nelson’s unit exonerated two Jacksonville men, Clifford Williams and Nathan Myers, who were imprisoned for 43 years each for a murder they did not commit.

In Florida alone, 72 people who collectively served hundreds of years in prison have been fully exonerated after their convictions were reviewed, including 29 who’d been sentenced to Death Row, according to the National Registry of Exonerations. One of them, Frank Lee Smith, died in prison before his exoneration was finalized.

Miller said he represents 30 imprisoned clients with credible claims of innocence who are racing against time to avoid infection with coronavirus long enough to complete legal proceedings that may set them free.

Statewide, 80 infections in state prisons had been confirmed among inmates and employees through Monday.