When jurors decided last week that two retired police officers should pay $7 million for framing a mentally challenged Broward teen for a murder that sent him to prison for close to 26 years, it set off a strong response. Dozens of Sun Sentinel readers expressed outrage that the former cops weren't going to prison too.
• "How about the cops serve the rest of his sentence for him, since they're the ones that put him there? How can anyone live with themselves knowing an innocent man has had his freedom taken away. Jail the cops," a reader wrote on a SunSentinel.com message board.
• "All we can hope for, in terms of justice for the murder victims and their loved ones, is that after the resolution of [Anthony] Caravella's case, our state prosecutors do their jobs and charge the former detectives responsible for this travesty as accessories after the fact for those crimes," Michael Brown, of Tamarac, wrote in a letter to the editor.
• "This case was so sad for Anthony. Put [them] in jail for 25 years I say," Marie Marotta Calante wrote on the Sun Sentinel's Facebook page.
The jury's civil liability finding Tuesday also led several local attorneys to call for an examination of the Caravella case by state or federal prosecutors in South Florida, or by the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice, whose stated mission is to "uphold the civil and constitutional rights of all Americans, particularly some of the most vulnerable members of our society."
"We are aware of the [Caravella] matter and are assessing it," Dena Iverson, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Justice in Washington, D.C., wrote in an email Friday.
After 11 hours of deliberation ending Tuesday, jurors in Caravella's civil case found that William Mantesta and George Pierson acted with malice or reckless indifference to Caravella, whose IQ was 67; that they violated his constitutional rights against being maliciously prosecuted and being coerced into confessing; and that they withheld evidence that might have helped to clear him soon after his 1983 arrest.
DNA testing excluded Caravella as the source of evidence in the rape and murder and he was set free in 2009.
Some of the local lawyers suggested that the feds should scrutinize four Broward County cases, including Caravella's, where men who had served long prison terms were cleared by DNA testing. Records kept by The Innocence Project show that almost a third of Florida's 13 post-conviction DNA exonerations occurred in Broward cases. There was one in Palm Beach County.
Three of the Broward cases involved false confessions by two mentally challenged and one mentally ill man men — Caravella, Jerry Frank Townsend and Frank Lee Smith — who were later cleared by DNA.
"There was never an investigation of all of these exonerations in Broward County; no department has looked and said, 'what happened here; how did these cases go so badly?'" said Barbara Heyer, Caravella's attorney in the civil case.
Along with Heyer, those seeking a full review of police and prosecutors' handling of the troubled cases include Broward Public Defender Howard Finkelstein; Diane Cuddihy, the Broward's chief assistant public defender who reopened Caravella's criminal case in 2001; and other lawyers not involved in either case.
Heyer said that the officers had "absolute immunity" by law for their testimony in Caravella's criminal trial in 1984 but suggested that prosecutors could examine Mantesta's and Pierson's recent testimony — about three days each — when they defended themselves in the civil suit.
The officers' defense, Heyer noted, was to continue to blame Caravella for the murder despite "uncontroverted" evidence he did not do it and to blame him for confessing, though jurors found he was coerced into doing so.
"Now they [Mantesta and Pierson] have testified to all this stuff, their conduct in the light of the evidence should be examined ... I would say by the [U.S.] Department of Justice," Heyer said.
Finkelstein said he's more concerned with having authorities examine what happened so that future misconduct and errors could be averted, to come up with better practices and policies, and to warn prosecutors and officers that their conduct is being scrutinized.
Carolyn McCann, a prosecutor who spoke on behalf of the Broward State Attorney's Office, said her office has learned important lessons from the wrongful convictions and has implemented new policies to try to prevent any repeats.
"No prosecutor ever wants to convict an innocent person. Where there has been an injustice in a case, our office has moved to correct it. Moving forward, our office will continue to be vigilant, availing ourselves of new technology and procedures. We urge law enforcement agencies to do likewise," McCann said. "It is our hope that police agencies will likewise take a close look at these cases, and correct whatever practices resulted in constitutional violations."
Bruce Zimet, a former federal prosecutor and respected South Florida defense attorney who is not involved in the cases, said wrongful convictions are "abhorrent to the justice system" and he knows of no reason why state and federal prosecutors wouldn't examine the local cases.
"My guess is both [the state and feds] are looking at it," Zimet said. "Any time someone is wrongfully convicted, I think everyone involved in the system wants to know what happened and how it happened ... A lot of people work very hard for the system to get the best possible result and when the system doesn't get the right result, people want to look at it and know why and how it happened."
That can mean examining the case to determine if any crime was committed by investigators and can that crime can be proven, Zimet said. At a minimum, it should mean examining how a case unfolded and what should have been done or could have been done better to help prevent future problems, he said.
A wrongful conviction or DNA exoneration doesn't automatically mean anybody intentionally did anything wrong, Zimet said.
"Because you're sloppy in your police work doesn't make you a criminal ... but if you testify about things you know are false or intentionally put false information in your police reports" or knowingly present lying witnesses to testify to a grand jury or in court, that should be investigated, Zimet said.
Prosecutors then have to figure out if the statute of limitations has run out on the alleged crime or whether statutes could be used to hold a person criminally liable, Zimet said.
The burden of proof is much heavier in a criminal case than in a civil one. Jurors deciding Caravella's civil suit had to be convinced by a preponderance of the evidence — meaning that his lawyer's allegations were more likely true than not true. To find someone criminally liable, jurors would have to find a person guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.
McCann emphasized that Broward prosecutors cooperated with Caravella's defense in doing DNA testing "not once, but two times," asked a judge to throw out his conviction, and were not named as defendants in his civil suit.
She said there have been many changes to criminal law and procedure — as well as the addition of DNA testing in about 1986 — since the Caravella, Townsend and Smith convictions occurred.
McCann said that "having learned from our own experience in the Frank Lee Smith case" Broward prosecutors undertook an unprecedented review of all its Death Row cases in 2001 and offered DNA testing in capital and other cases. They also pushed local law enforcement to videotape all statements taken from suspects from beginning to end and urged police to fully advise suspects of their rights "without any shortcuts." The office takes allegations of police misconduct seriously and reviews them on an individual basis, she said.
A civil lawsuit accusing Broward Sheriff's detectives of framing Frank Lee Smith, a Fort Lauderdale man who died of cancer on Florida's Death Row before DNA exonerated him in the rape and murder of an 8-year-old girl, will go to trial this summer in Broward Circuit Court. Smith's sister filed the lawsuit seeking damages.
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