Area rabbi helps save stolen lives
“It’s a very important cause and a very Jewish cause,” he said, “because people who have been falsely convicted have essentially had their lives stolen from them, and if we can help them be exonerated we give them back whatever portion of their life is left.
“For Orthodox and Conservative Jews the Talmud is as precious a part of our sacred literature as is the Torah and the rest of our Bible. For Reform Jews, at the very least, even those of us who don’t consider it a continuation of the Revelation, it is sacred literature and it is to be very important guidance,” said Rabbi Klein, spiritual leader of the Palm Harbor Reform congregation.
Nationwide, the Innocence Project’s purpose is freeing prisoners unjustly convicted of a crime, some of them incarcerated for decades, 157 of them after being on death row. Since being founded in 2003 the Innocence Project of Florida has achieved 17 exonerations.
“These are not technical exonerations, not people who were technically not guilty because of some fluke in the system,” said Robert Cromwell, a retired FBI agent and board member and former board chair of the IPF.“These are actually innocent people who were exonerated.”
In some cases, it comes too late.
There is a play, The Exonerated, which depicts stories of innocence and redemption, one of them “the story of a young Jewish woman whose boyfriend was executed in Florida,” said Rabbi Klein, who saw a production in 2005 in Sarasota.
The rabbi also officiated at the funeral of a man who committed suicide “because he was about to be indicted for a serious but not a violent crime. His widow made it very clear to me that she believed he was completely innocent. Within a year of his death he was exonerated and it was his accuser who went to prison because he was guilty of the crime.”
It was moments like those, and a conversation with noted defense attorney Alan Dershowitz, that attracted Rabbi Klein to become involved in the Innocence Project of Florida.
In 1999 Dershowitz spoke at Temple Ahavat Shalom. “He asked that the (honorarium) check be made out to the Innocence Project, that he was donating all his speaking fees that year to it.
“He proceeded to tell me about all the things Innocence Projects do, how many people are mistakenly convicted, how many times eyewitness testimony is inaccurate and about how often confessions are coerced … and that in many states (including Florida) prosecutors and police are allowed to lie in order to extract a confession.
“He made it very clear to me that Innocence Projects around the country were a cause that he thought we all should support. That conversation remained with me for many years.”
Rabbi Klein is the only rabbi in Florida currently working with the state’s Innocence Project and one of only two clergy (the other is a minister from the Orlando area) on the IPF board.
Rabbi Klein’s IPF duties include raising awareness and, more importantly, raising funds. He also helps the exonerated re-enter society. “That’s very much in keeping with Jewish teachings about compassion and community,” he said.
“Prison is absolute hell. Prison destroys a human being and it does it quickly. We need a penal system to protect our society from people who are likely to hurt others, but prisons don’t produce rehabilitation.”
Cromwell, a former Navy cryptologist, New Jersey police officer and NCIS special agent who spent 22 years with the FBI, will be speaking at Temple Ahavat Shalom on Wednesday, March 22.
He will be joined by James Bain of Tampa, who was 18 years old when he was convicted of the kidnapping and rape of a 9-year-old boy – crimes he didn’t commit. He was exonerated in 2009 after spending 35 years in prison, the longest time served by an innocent man eventually freed using DNA evidence. Bain now is a public speaker telling his story for the IPF.
Florida law decrees that someone wrongfully convicted is paid $50,000 for every year spent in prison – if that person has not been guilty of a prior felony. Bain was paid $1.75-million, but if he’d had a record for, say, having four grams of Oxycodone in his pocket he’d have gotten nothing.
“Doesn’t seem right, does it,” Cromwell mused.
While he was incarcerated, Bain requested DNA testing five times “and his appeal was refused five times because of technicalities,” Cromwell said. “He wrote the appeals himself. He’s a high school-educated guy.” It was during this time that the IPF became aware if his case and stepped in.
“You’ve got to follow the right format. It’s got to be in legalese, and the prosecutors and courts aren’t there to help.”
There are numerous problems with the justice system as it now exists, Cromwell said, among them government misconduct, bad science, coerced confessions, and the reliance on eyewitness testimony.
According to the Innocence Project, eyewitness misidentification accounts for 75 percent of convictions later overturned by DNA evidence.
“Often the identification process is done with photographs, so people often aren’t really sure (whom they name as the perpetrator),” Cromwell said. “They think they may be right, but by the time it comes to trial they’re absolutely sure.”
As part of the evidence against Bain, according to police, the 9-year-old victim said his attacker told him his name was Jimmy and that he had a mustache and sideburns. The boy’s uncle, a principal at Bain’s high school, said he knew someone who fit that description and showed the boy Bain’s yearbook photo.
Bain had an alibi and was watching television with his sister when the police arrived at his home at midnight and arrested him.
According to Cromwell, in his book, Fugitive Man, the police took the boy to the police station “and presented him with a photo lineup. Bain’s photo was included … along with four or five other males, only one of whom (Bain) had sideburns.”
“Rather than asking the victim to pick out the photo of his assailant, the police suggestively and improperly instructed him to pick out Bain’s photo, and he did,” Cromwell wrote.
There was conflicting testimony by the FBI and expert defense witnesses regarding evidence and, as Cromwell wrote, “It never occurred to anyone that Bain, who is in no way mentally challenged, would have been crazy enough to tell the victim his name was Jimmy.”
Bain was convicted on all counts and sentenced to life in prison. ‘I think they mainly convicted me when the victim stood up in the courtroom and pointed at me. … He was crying and everything,” Bain said.
After he was released, Bain and the boy – a grown man by then – spoke to each other through lawyers as intermediaries. Bain expressed sorrow at what the victim had gone through as a child and when the man was remorseful about his misidentification, Bain forgave him.