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The Innocence Project of Florida has exonerated 18 men for wrongful convictions since the nonprofit's founding in 2003.
The Innocence Project of Florida has exonerated 18 men for wrongful convictions since the nonprofit's founding in 2003.
Gorge720 via Wikimedia Commons

"Stand Up for Innocence" Comedy Show Spotlights Wrongful Convictions in Florida

Criminal justice reform isn't typically associated with belly laughs. But this weekend, The Innocence Project of Florida (IPF) is putting on a two-night comedy show, "Stand Up for Innocence 2019," in Lake Park and Fort Lauderdale, with proceeds funneling back to fund their initiative. Headlining the event is comedian Owen Smith, with Andy Pitz performing the opening act and Karen Bergreen hosting each evening.

IPF Executive Director Seth Miller says the show is an annual community gathering to raise awareness of wrongful convictions and help support the organization's drive to achieve justice for those wrongfully incarcerated. "We have a team who work to represent people in prison who have viable claims of innocence, and so our work requires a tremendous amount of resources to provide those folks high-quality legal assistance so they can be exonerated and released," says Miller.

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"We're a nonprofit organization, so we have to raise every penny that it takes to do this really important mission-driven work," he adds. Nine members make up the IPF's team of attorneys, investigators and social workers who provide free legal representation to those whose cases they take up. The nonprofit reportedly runs on charitable donations only.

As of today, the foundation has exonerated 18 men who were wrongfully imprisoned and served a collective 350 years in prison for crimes they did not commit. Their latest successful case was on behalf of Dean McKee, who spent 30 years in prison after his older brother framed him for a stabbing. On January 30, 2019, the state dropped all murder charges and cleared his name.

"We know there are consistent contributing causes to wrongful conviction," explains Miller. He cites a number of factors that frequently lead to false confessions and then wrongful convictions, with the most common being misidentification by a witness. "Eyewitnesses oftentimes misidentify the person who they thought committed a crime. That tends to be the leading cause of wrongful convictions. Another example is false confessions: Even people who are innocent falsely confess to crimes they didn't commit for reasons that have nothing to do with guilt or innocence. It could be either their intellectual frailties or their age or their willingness to cooperate in an interrogation in order to get out of it."

Miller also cites inaccurate forensic science as a contributing factor. DNA testing is among the more advanced scientific methods that he and his team have found over time can prove that antiquated "guilty" rulings were never valid. Cross-examination conduct and poor trial attorney defense can also contribute to wrongful conviction.

What these systemic failures do is steal away years of life from individuals caught in the crosshairs of a flawed criminal justice practice. Since 1989, 67 people in the state of Florida have been exonerated for wrongful conviction. Among those, 27 individuals were exonerated from death row. At first glance, the numbers of those found to be wrongfully convicted statewide could be perceived as underwhelming; at least until the implications behind each false sentence served sinks in. A stunning total of 2,372 people have been exonerated nationwide since 1989, with a combined 20,735 years of life served behind bars.

Although indisputably tragic, the IPF's executive director says an "upshot" exists to having so many exonerations take place and freeing people who are innocent: identifying the causes of wrongful convictions to design reform efforts around preventing these from taking place in the future. "It's really good to get people out, right? You're innocent. But the next step of that is saying, 'We don't want to keep doing the same things over and over again. So let's try to make a more just system, a more equal system. One that, at the end of it, spits out the right result.'"

Stand Up For Innocence 2019. 7 p.m. Friday, February 8 at the Kelsey Theater, 700 Park Ave., Lake Park and 7 p.m. Saturday, February 9 at the American Heritage School, 12200 W. Broward, Plantation. Tickets range from $50 to $100 and include a pre-show reception with exonerees, drink tickets, light appetizers, and the show. Details for each event vary depending on venue. For more show information, visitfloridainnocence.org/stand-up-2019.

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