FL’s process of compensating people for years of wrongful incarceration is opaque

Some claims languish for years without closure or even hearings

By: - October 1, 2021 7:00 am

Credit: Florida Department of Corrections

Barney Brown, a Miami-Dade man wrongfully imprisoned for 38 years on rape and robbery convictions, has received no compensation from the state since his release in 2008, despite filing numerous claims.

Scotty Bartek of Ocala was imprisoned for 23 years, allegedly for sexually battering a child who years later said the crime never happened. Bartek was exonerated in 2014 but received no state compensation, due to a technicality, and has tried three times so far to file a special claim bill.

The state process for compensating wrongfully incarcerated people — or ignoring their special claims indefinitely — is opaque to the public and even to some lawmakers, who wonder how decisions get made behind the scenes.

Those in criminal justice circles describe a largely subjective process, controlled by legislative leaders and their influencers, including state attorney offices involved in the underlying cases.

Florida has a statutory process for compensating the wrongly convicted, but it requires that they meet strict deadlines and have “clean hands” — meaning no other felony convictions. The statutory criteria exclude many claims, but members of the Legislature can file special legislation seeking compensation.

Whether the legislation is taken up for consideration is part of a process one senator calls a “mystery wrapped in an enigma.”

Looking ahead to the 2022 legislative session, which convenes in January, lawmakers have filed claims bills for four men who were wrongfully incarcerated, did not qualify for statutory compensation, and are seeking relief  via special claim bills.

Rep. Joe Geller, a Broward-Dade Democrat, has filed a claim bill for Barney Brown four years in a row, taking up the cause after its previous champion, Sen. Dwight Bullard, lost his re-election in 2016.

Geller told the Phoenix he will insist that Brown’s claim — which has its detractors — is resolved one way or another during the 2022 legislative session, which will be his last.

“This case needs to be heard. I’m not taking no for an answer,” Geller said in an interview Thursday.

Geller said that Brown, now 67, was 15 when he was accused of rape in 1969. He was acquitted in juvenile court, then convicted in adult court — constituting a case of double jeopardy that led Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Antonio Marin to throw out the conviction decades later, in 2008.

Geller said House leaders have not explained why they have not scheduled Brown’s claim bill for a public hearing to either grant the compensation or deny it.

“Nothing,” he said when asked what he has been told. “This happened over 50 years ago. He was a teenager, a  young Black teenager …

“I have sponsored this for years. How hard am I supposed to have to push just to get this to a hearing?”

Prosecutors in Miami-Dade expressed concerns about Brown’s conviction being overturned — concerns that may be blocking his efforts to secure compensation for Brown, Geller said. Because there has been no hearing, Geller said, he just doesn’t know.

A spokesman for the State Attorney’s Office in Miami did not offer a comment but said a former prosecutor in Brown’s case expressed some concerns to lawmakers in writing. The spokesman agreed to provide copies to the Phoenix but not in time to be included in this report. Fulfillment of public-records requests there, especially for old records, routinely take a few weeks, office staff said.

Clifford Williams, at the podium with his wife, Leatrice, was exonerated after 43 years in prison with the help of the Innocence Project of Florida, Holland & Knight law firm, and the conviction review unit of the State Attorney’s Office in Jacksonville. Photo: Laura Cassels

Calls and emails Thursday to the office of House Speaker Chris Sprowls, asking whether he supports a hearing for Brown’s claim bill this year, were not immediately returned.

Scotty Bartek’s claim has been filed by Sen. Dennis Baxley, a Republican who represents a north-central Florida district, for three years in a row. Bartek was exonerated in 2014, after serving 23 years in prison. The Phoenix was unable to ascertain whether a special master has looked at Bartek’s or Brown’s long-standing claims. Sen. Baxley did not respond to requests for an interview.

Filing a claim bill for Brown or Bartek or any wrongfully convicted person does not ensure compensation will be paid. Claims must be evaluated by an independent special master who reports to lawmakers. According to Senate spokeswoman Katie Betta, no report is disclosed until legislative leaders schedule a hearing to consider the findings.

“The Senate special master for each claim bill conducts a hearing between the parties involved in the claim; however, the special master does not issue a report unless the bill is scheduled for a Senate committee hearing,” Betta wrote.

In a claim resolved during the 2021 session, a special master found that Clifford Williams had been wrongfully convicted of murder in Jacksonville, costing him 43 years in prison, some of them on Death Row.

With the help of the Innocence Project of Florida and the Holland & Knight law firm, working for free, Williams’ conviction was overturned in 2018. Sen. Audrey Gibson and former Rep. Kimberly Daniels, both  Democrats from Jacksonville, filed a  claim on his behalf, along with Rep. Jason Fischer, a Jacksonville Republican.

Near the end of session, the Legislature approved compensation to Williams of $2.15 million, roughly $50,000 for each year of his life wasted behind bars.

So why did the special claim bill for Williams, exonerated in 2018, go through smoothly while claims for Brown and Bartek have languished for years?

Robert DuBoise was fully exonerated after being imprisoned for 37 years for crimes he did not commit. Credit: Innocence Project of Florida

“I wonder the same thing,” Geller said. “This is my last session. I want this to be heard before a special master.”

“It’s a mystery wrapped in an enigma,” said Sen. Jeff Brandes, a Pinellas County Republican. Brandes is cosponsoring a claim bill for Robert DuBoise, who was exonerated and freed from prison last year after being wrongfully imprisoned for 37 years.

Brandes told the Phoenix the Legislature’s process for resolving claims of wrongful conviction is riddled with problems, including secrecy, that can deny justice to wrongfully convicted people, sometimes without their petition even being heard.

“Mr. DuBoise spent decades of his life on Death Row. This is about righting a wrong,” said Brandes, long an advocate for criminal-justice reform.

DuBoise’s claim is cosponsored with Rep. Andrew Learned, a Hillsborough Democrat who also filed the claim last year.

Leonard Cure, surrounded by family members, was wrongfully imprisoned for 16 years and was fully exonerated. Credit: Cure family photo provided by Innocence Project of Florida

Another claim filed for the coming session is for Leonard Cure, exonerated last year after being imprisoned for 16 years. His claim is sponsored by Rep. Michael Gottlieb, a Broward Democrat who also cosponsored last year’s claim for DuBoise.

Cure was misidentified as an armed robber. At age 51, his conviction was overturned with the help of Innocence Project of Florida and conviction-review investigators in the 17th Judicial Circuit State Attorney’s Office in Broward County.

Conviction-integrity review units established in Florida in recent years have found numerous cases of wrongful convictions, leading to exonerations, including those of Clifford Williams, Robert DuBoise, and Leonard Cure.

Collectively, just those three exonerees were wrongfully incarcerated for 96 years.

Details of other exonerations can be found at the National Registry of Exonerations and at the Innocence Project of Florida, which profiles 28 Florida men and women it has helped exonerate. Just six of those have received compensation.

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Laura Cassels
Laura Cassels

Laura Cassels is a reporter, former statehouse bureau chief, and former city editor. She is a classical pianist, a Florida State University graduate and proud alum of the Florida Flambeau, an independent college newspaper. Contact her at [email protected]