Two decades ago, while still in law school, Shelley Thibodeau was assigned the case of a child arrested for skateboarding on school property. At the time, she didn’t have much of an idea about what she wanted to do with a law degree, but she was stunned to learn a child could be detained by a police officer over something as minor as skateboarding. She began to work, digging up city records and analyzing the law. The sidewalk where the child was skateboarding, she learned, wasn’t a part of the school property. Research as simple as that got the kid released and the charges dropped.
Since then, Thibodeau has worked in Jacksonville as a defense attorney, handling thousands of criminal cases as one of the area’s premiere private attorneys. But a few weeks ago, that ended when State Attorney Melissa Nelson announced she had appointed Thibodeau as the leader of Florida’s first-ever conviction integrity review unit.
Just after election, Nelson promised to form such a unit, and once she took office, she secured recurring funding — $380,000 — but then there was a hiccup. The state was also taking away $339,000. All in all, she was left with just an extra $41,000, hardly enough to cover the salaries of attorneys, investigators and support staff.
Dreams of a well-staffed unit would have to wait, but Nelson said then that she was undeterred, even if the unit would start out smaller than planned.
“This CIR will be a first for Florida,” Nelson wrote to her staff when she announced Thibodeau’s hiring on Jan. 5, “and will be an invaluable tool for us both internally and externally. The work of the CIR will lead to learning opportunities and improved processes in the review and prosecution of cases, and — just as important — it shows the people of the Fourth Circuit of our commitment to accountability and transparency in the work we do every day.”
Jacksonville’s new unit formed 11 years after the prosecutor’s office in Dallas invented the idea. In that county, a defense attorney won election as the countywide prosecutor, saying he was going to bring about a different kind of justice. In just a six-year period prior, the county had seen 13 prisoners exonerated thanks to DNA evidence. District Attorney Craig Watkins announced his office would re-test DNA and look for possible wrongful convictions. He started by ordering a review of more than 400 convictions.
The idea spread from there. Houston, Fort Worth and San Antonio set up units of their own, as did Brooklyn and Manhattan and Chicago and even smaller jurisdictions like Lake County in Illinois. Yet no elected prosecutor in Florida decided to follow suit until now.
“One of the great things about the emergence of conviction review units is everybody’s doing them slightly differently, and you have the opportunity to make them slightly different to fit your jurisdiction,” said John Hollway, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania who has put together a list of 23 best practices for conviction integrity units. Hollway has agreed to help Thibodeau and Nelson.
Thibodeau will act independently, reporting directly to Nelson, as Hollway recommends. She will only look for defendants that claim innocence, not just cases where prosecutors might have mishandled trials. She will only accept claims for felonies, not misdemeanors. She will also issue reports, along with Hollway, that detail past mistakes.
“In aviation and health care, mistakes are autopsied,” Nelson said. “That is, I think, a very important part of this work. [Hollway] wants to do sentinel reviews. Taking a case that may be old and saying, ‘Hey prosecutors, here’s what went wrong in this case.’ This will be an opportunity to really learn from mistakes.”
But some of the finer details, like whether Thibodeau will review cases that haven’t yet exhausted appeals, hadn’t yet been agreed to.
During an interview, Thibodeau said she sees no reason to exclude these cases, but after the interview, Nelson’s spokesman, David Chapman, said it was premature to determine if the office will require people to wait until after they’ve appealed. For example, it’s possible the office could be trying to preserve a conviction on appeal at the same time Thibodeau was investigating whether that person should be exonerated.
To request reviews, those who say they were wrongfully convicted must have been convicted in the Fourth Judicial Circuit, which includes Duval, Clay and Nassau counties. They also “must present a plausible claim of actual innocence and must present a claim that is capable of being investigated and supported by credible evidence,” Thibodeau said in an email Monday. The State Attorney’s Office will put a petition form on its website.
“I think we can all agree that no benefit is served by an innocent person being convicted, especially since the alternative is that the guilty person has not been held accountable. I look forward to being a part of this endeavor and cannot think of a greater service I could provide another human being than to give a wrongly convicted individual back their liberty.”
She said she will prioritize those who are currently incarcerated. Duval County leads the state in sending inmates to Death Row, with more than double the number of inmates from second-place Miami-Dade, so it remains to be seen how much capital cases will consume Thibodeau’s work.
An investigator and a paralegal will split their time working for Thibodeau and for a cold-case unit. Despite the small size, Hollway said, “there’s no reason to think State Attorney Nelson can’t produce an equipped and productive unit.”
He and Nelson both said it was important to hire someone both prosecutors and defense attorneys would trust.
“It takes time to convince the attorneys in your office that the unit is there to help you do your job better and not to second-guess your decisions,” Hollway said. “It takes time to convince the defense bar that … it’s a sincere process and the attorneys can trust the unit to handle cases in a responsible manner. It’s a process of communicating what the unit’s about and walking the walk.”
Her longtime law partner Craig Williams, who has since retired, pointed to their own old cases. “We handled some very difficult cases over the years where the circumstances made us believe they may have been innocent. It’s very difficult to correct those errors. To be in a position to correct those errors would be awesome.”
Already some attorneys, like Rhonda Peoples-Waters, are preparing petitions. Peoples-Waters said she was impressed Nelson chose Thibodeau to lead the unit, and she trusts the case she’s preparing will get a fair shake. “She’s a hard worker. She’s known to do the research. I definitely have so much respect for her. I thought it spoke volumes of Melissa to hire her.”
Betsy White, a constitutional lawyer who has handled death-penalty cases in the past, echoed that. “She brings the experience that position needs. I think she’s ethical. She’s honest. … We need someone who will not be afraid to go to places where other people would hesitate to go to.”
Nelson said she hopes by next year she can bring Thibodeau to Tallahassee to tout the return on the Legislature’s investment.
Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, a former prosecutor, said that ultimately, it will be up to the other 19 elected state attorneys to decide if they are willing to spend money on units like this. “Whether it is something that expands to other areas of the state is going to be largely dependent on the model that is being built right now by Ms. Nelson.”
The legislator who fought to secure the funding for the office, Sen. Aaron Bean, R-Fernandina Beach, said if government has the power to take away someone’s liberty, then a unit that tries to identify when it was done wrongly is essential.
“There’s nothing more sad than discovering we’ve convicted an innocent person,” he said. “Hopefully this is going to bring trust and faith in the judicial system.”
Andrew Pantazi: (904) 359-4310