Five state inmates insisting they are innocent of the crimes for which they are serving prison time want the Florida Cabinet to meet next month — which would be only its second meeting in 2020 — and set them free.
Represented by lawyers with the Innocence Project of Florida, the five petitioned for clemency in July, providing evidence of their innocence and voicing fear that the rapid spread of COVID-19 in state prisons will reach them before the courts act to exonerate them.
The Board of Executive Clemency, comprising Gov. Ron DeSantis, Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis, Attorney General Ashley Moody (who are Republicans) and Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried (the lone Democrat), has met just once this year, in January.
The Innocence Project calls the inmates the “Florida Five” and is vouching for their innocence following investigations that turned up evidence of wrongful convictions.
“The cases of the Florida Five are different in many ways but are the same in one significant way — evidence demonstrates that they are innocent,” said Staff Attorney Krista Dolan in a press release from the Innocence Project of Florida.
The project’s executive director, Seth Miller, added, “COVID-19 has ravaged jails and prison facilities throughout Florida and the nation, even infecting the top administrator of Florida’s Department of Corrections [Secretary Mark Inch and Deputy Secretary Ricky Dixon]. The Florida Five are now at substantial risk of contracting a deadly virus that has also ground their efforts to achieve vindication in the courts to a halt.”
The eldest of the five is Thomas Gilbert, 67, sentenced to life for the 1973 Dade County murder of a tourist. Gilbert’s lawyers with the Innocence Project found that a 1977 reinvestigation by the Miami-Dade Police Department confirmed another person’s confession to the crime, yet Gilbert has remained in prison for more than 46 years.
Likewise, Leo Schofield, was sentenced to life for the 1987 murder of his wife in Polk County, despite a convicted murderer confessing to the crime in detail, according to Innocence Project investigators.
Schofield, 54, and Gilbert, 67, are considered “elderly” by prison standards, putting them at heightened risk of contracting and dying of COVID-19 due to their age, inmate advocates say.
The Innocence Project of Florida also is seeking clemency for Amanda Brumfield, convicted of killing a child though evidence indicates the death was an accident; Dustin Duty, convicted of armed robbery based on identification by a woman who now refutes her testimony and despite existence of an alibi provided by his employer; and Randy Seal, convicted of setting a fire to murder his girlfriend in Polk County, though fire experts now agree the blaze was not intentionally set.
The Florida Five have, collectively, spent 109 years in prison.
Through Monday, 65 inmates in Florida prisons had died of COVID-19 and more than 12,000 of the population of roughly 94,000 are or were infected, according to the Florida Department of Corrections.