Florida Moves to Close Window for DNA Appeals

A law in Florida that allows prisoners to appeal their convictions using DNA evidence will expire Oct. 1. Prisoner advocates say there's no reason to cut off appeals, but some state officials disagree.

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For the first time in more than a quarter of a century, Luis Diaz can say he's starting the week as a free man. In 1980, the 67-year-old father of three was convicted of being the `Bird Road' rapist, an attacker who sexually assaulted 25 women along the same Miami road. After years of appeals, the state finally tested DNA evidence left at two of the crime scenes. Both samples came from the same man and that man was not Luis Diaz. Even as the Diaz family celebrates his release, the Florida law that allowed his case to be reopened is set to expire on October 1st. NPR's Luke Burbank reports from Miami.

(Soundbite from restaurant)

LUKE BURBANK reporting:

Luis Diaz has just been released after 26 years in prison and, sitting in a Ft. Lauderdale Denny's, he's still learning how everything works here on the outside.

Mr. LUIS DIAZ: (Foreign language spoken)

Mr. JOSE DIAZ (Luis Diaz's Son): About the coffee, you know, he's like, `OK, can I order a little bit more coffee?' And then I say, `Yeah, Dad, don't worry about it. You know, they'll give you refills.'

BURBANK: His oldest son, Jose, has been taking care of him since his release. Diaz is tiny, just 5'3" tall. And at 67 years old he looks almost childlike. After so many years in prison, Jose Diaz says in many ways his father is like a child.

Mr. J. DIAZ: You know, like the other day we went to the men's urinals together and he's standing in front of the urinal and he's saying `Son, where's the button to flush?' And it happened to be one of those automated ones. So he moved back a hair and it went poof. And he goes `Oh, look!'

(Soundbite from restaurant)

BURBANK: Back in the 1970s, Diaz was a restaurant fry cook who'd emigrated from Cuba with his young family. He'd take his sons along on his second job, mowing lawns. But everything changed in 1980 when he was accused and convicted of a series of brutal rapes. Diaz always maintained his innocence and in 1998, out of desperation, his son wrote a letter to the Innocence Project in New York. It took another seven years, but eventually a DNA test found that the same man had committed at least two of the attacks, a man who was not Luis Diaz. As remarkable as his story is, advocates for the wrongly imprisoned say there are many more like him.

Ms. MICHELLE FONTAINE (Florida Innocence Initiative): The ones from out of state are usually the hardest for me to read because they're the ones that are just so desperate for assistance that they just keep sending.

BURBANK: Michelle Fontaine has a stack of letters on her desk. She's one of the Florida Innocence Initiative's two employees.

Ms. FONTAINE: It says, `I'm writing in hopes of getting your assistance to help me prove my innocence. If I may, I would like to share my story with you in a nutshell.'

BURBANK: Fontaine and Jenny Greenberg, the initiative's director, get 20 to 25 of these letters a week. Originally an offshoot of the national Innocence Project, they now handle just Florida cases. Their tiny office in a rundown Tallahassee building is stacked to the ceiling with cases they're working on. Greenberg says some have been filed with the court while others are still incomplete.

Ms. JENNY GREENBERG (Director, Florida Innocence Initiative): We have cases everywhere. Everywhere. Boxes, stacks there. Yeah, even in--out here we have more cases.

BURBANK: As of October 1st, though, those unfiled cases that are older than four years will be ineligible for review. Here's why. Back in 2001, when states first realized the power of DNA evidence, Florida created a two-year window for prisoners to appeal their cases however old they were. But not everyone could get their paperwork together, so that window was extended and extended again. But now the state says prisoners with old cases have had plenty of time.

Mr. WILLIE MEGGS (Florida State Attorney): People have raised their claims.

BURBANK: Willie Meggs is a state's attorney in Tallahassee.

Mr. MEGGS: I don't think there are many people in prison now who haven't had an opportunity to have their DNA test done if they wanted one done.

BURBANK: Jenny Greenberg disagrees and she says she's got roughly 700 cases to prove it. She doesn't think there should be any statute of limitations on when a case can be reopened, because, she says, just getting a look at the evidence can take years.

Ms. GREENBERG: Part of the reason why deadlines are so noxious is because the state holds all of the cards. The state has the evidence. We do not.

BURBANK: Willie Meggs and others say that leaving old cases open to DNA appeals deprives victims of the closure they need, and on a practical level he says...

Mr. MEGGS: If it's open-ended forever that means we can never ever ever destroy any evidence. We've got to keep that tennis shoe that may have had blood on it because someone may decide 20 years from now they'd like to have it tested for DNA. Does that make sense to you?

Ms. PATTI WALLACE (Tallahassee Police Department): I'm Patti Wallace and I'm the property and evidence supervisor of the Tallahassee Police Department.

BURBANK: All that evidence has to be stored somewhere, places like this, the evidence locker of the Tallahassee Police Department.

Ms. WALLACE: This is actually the freezer and this is the refrigerator. And the refrigerator, we are slam-packed at this point because of the DNA law. It has really pushed us. We can't get rid of enough stuff.

BURBANK: In Florida, once a case is decided and the appeals run out, regular evidence can be destroyed. But not DNA. That's thanks to a recent executive order signed by Governor Jeb Bush. So where will all that stuff go? Patti Wallace doesn't know. She's already got more evidence than she can handle. There's the guitar-shaped bong, old furniture, electronics; it's basically your garage on its worst day ever.

In the refrigerator, next to all the red envelopes with DNA in them, there are other oddities.

Ms. WALLACE: It Chinese dinner. That's what it is. So we're keeping it refrigerated because it, you know, who knows what kind of case that is.

BURBANK: When did that come in?

Ms. WALLACE: January.

BURBANK: It's a little old.

Ms. WALLACE: It's a little old.

BURBANK: Other states will be watching the next session of the Florida Legislature as it takes up the issue of old DNA cases, and Luis Diaz's story will no doubt figure prominently in those debates. Slowly, he's getting used to all the attention from people like this waitress at Denny's.

(Soundbite from restaurant)

Unidentified Woman: I'm very honored to be in your presence. It's about time our justice system does something right.

BURBANK: Diaz brightens and uses the little English he does speak.

Mr. L. DIAZ: Thank you very much. God bless you.

Unidentified Woman: Oh, God bless you, baby.

BURBANK: Little by little, he's adjusting to life on the outside, too. He started the meal wondering if he was allowed to have his coffee refilled. By the end, he barely blinks as the waitress pours him his fourth cup. Luke Burbank, NPR News, Miami.

INSKEEP: This is NPR News.

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