Joe Henderson: Tallahassee’s wrongful conviction compensation law is unjust and needs to change

Fixing a bad law should be easy, if the Legislature will make it a priority.

Imagine you’re 18 years old and convicted of a murder you didn’t commit. The jury found you guilty on shaky evidence and recommended life imprisonment, but the judge decided the crime was heinous and deserved the death penalty.

Your appeals went nowhere, so you sat in prison for nearly 37 years until DNA evidence proved your innocence. The state let you out of prison, and you filed for the compensation Florida law provides in these situations — $50,000 for each year of incarceration, or $1.85 million total.

That seems fair, but a wacky law stands in the way. You are ineligible for compensation because of prior convictions unrelated to the murder case.

Seems dumb, right? Robert Earl DuBoise would agree with you because he lived that nightmare and now finds his just compensation tangled up in red legalese.

Right now, though, that’s the law in Florida, and it needs to change. Sen. Jeff Brandes, a St. Petersburg Republican, and Rep. Traci Koster, a Tampa Republican, are trying to do just that.

“If anyone thinks justice was served by simply releasing him without compensating him, that’s not justice,” Brandes told reporter Jeffrey Schweers of the USA Today-Florida network. “Just letting him out is not justice.”

Now, all they have to do is get their respective legislative bodies to correct an obvious flaw in the system. That’s the tricky part.

Lawmakers tried to fix this problem in 2020, and their efforts unanimously cleared committees but never got a floor vote. In the 2021 Legislative Session, the bills didn’t even get out of committee.

It’s past time for Gov. Ron DeSantis to step up on his bully pulpit and set things straight. This should not be a heavy lift for lawmakers. In the big picture, we’re not talking about a budget-buster, and the Governor’s endorsement should provide enough oomph to push this across the finish line.

DeSantis is a Juris Doctor cum laude graduate of Harvard Law School. He was a JAG officer in the U.S. Navy. If anyone should understand what passes for justice, it’s DeSantis.

Tallahassee often works in mysterious ways when it comes to the Session, though. Lobbyists, constituents, their party’s leadership, and, of course, the media, bombard lawmakers every day. I imagine most senators and representatives wouldn’t have a problem making this change. Still, they get busy with other stuff, and help for people like Robert Earl DuBoise gets trampled by higher-priority items.

The solution is to make this a high-priority item.

DeSantis and leaders in the House and Senate could push this to the forefront, bring it to a vote, and get it done.

It needs to happen.

Joe Henderson

I have a 45-year career in newspapers, including nearly 42 years at The Tampa Tribune. Florida is wacky, wonderful, unpredictable and a national force. It's a treat to have a front-row seat for it all.


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