SARASOTA, Fla. (Feb. 19, 2016) – Amid the national debate about law enforcement, USF Sarasota-Manatee is offering what it hopes provokes a thoughtful dialogue about the legal system: A panel discussion about wrongful convictions.
In partnership with the Innocence Project of Florida and the Evelyn M. Duvall Family Studies Initiative, USFSM will host a discussion Wednesday, Feb. 24, from 6 to 8 p.m., with two men who were wrongfully convicted of brutal crimes and released years later after efforts by lawyers from the Innocence Project, a non-profit legal organization. The discussion, scheduled at the Selby Auditorium, 8350 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota, is free, open to the public and does not require reservations.
Among the panelists are Robert Cromwell, a retired FBI agent and president of the board of directors for the Innocence Project of Florida; Larry Eger, public defender for the 12th Judicial Circuit; and Harriet Hendel, a retired educator and Innocence Project board member.
The men set to speak about their wrongful convictions are James Bain of Tampa, who was exonerated after 35 years in prison, and Derrick Williams of Bradenton, exonerated after 18 years.
Bain was charged with rape and kidnapping in 1974. Maintaining his innocence years after his conviction, he made repeated motions for DNA testing of evidence from the case, but was denied each time until the Innocence Project of Florida joined the effort. The testing proceeded at an independent lab and eventually revealed that Bain could not have been the rapist. He was released in 2009 after 35 years in prison.
Williams served 18 years after a woman claimed he raped her in 1992. She said she was returning to her home in Palmetto during a heavy rainstorm. As she pulled up, she noticed a man on the porch. She said he forced his way into her car, punched her repeatedly and drove to a deserted orange grove where he sexually assaulted her.
Looking at mugshots at the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office, she identified Williams as the rapist but admitted to not getting a good look at the man’s face. Years later, DNA testing of a T-shirt left inside the car proved Williams was not the perpetrator. Additionally, Innocence Project lawyers argued that evidence that might have exonerated Williams was illegally kept from the defense at the time of trial. He was released in 2011.
Hendel, who divides her time between Sarasota and New York, organized the panel discussion with Dr. Jessica Grosholz, an assistant professor of criminology at USF Sarasota-Manatee. After remarks by Hendel, Cromwell and Eger, the discussion will be turned over to Bain and Williams to recount how they were arrested, sentenced and imprisoned, how they coped with life in prison and the events that led to their release.
After the talk, audience members will have 45 minutes for questions and answers with the panelists.
The discussion comes amid a national debate about law enforcement tactics, the militarization of police and unfair treatment of minorities. Hendel and Grosholz said that while they believe race factors into some cases involving police and prosecutorial misconduct, they said the panel was not assembled to focus on officers’ treatment of minorities.
The discussion will instead focus on efforts by the Florida Innocence Project, the kinds of mistakes police and prosecutors can make and how investigations can go off track based on errant eyewitness testimony, over-zealousness prosecutions and other factors.
“I don’t think the criminal justice system looks to convict maliciously, but sometimes law enforcement can feel like they have the right guy and almost have blinders on to anyone else,” said Dr. Grosholz, who specializes in issues involving prisoner recidivism and re-entry into society.
“This is one of the best panels of its kind that I’ve seen and I’m really excited for our students and the community,” she added.
The discussion was organized starting last fall after Hendel, who was teaching an adult learning class about the criminal justice system, brought up the idea with USFSM Regional Chancellor Dr. Sandra Stone. She suggested Hendel meet with Dr. Grosholz to further discuss the idea. After meeting, they expanded the discussion from a couple of speakers to a panel, including those who were exonerated.
“The stories these two men tell are unbelievable, especially Jamie’s (Bain’s),” Hendel said. “Here’s a man who was only 19 when he went in and 54 when he came out and he was innocent. The horror of that kind of thing just frightens me.”