Leonard Pitts Jr.: In Florida, you can never over-punish the innocent enough

The DNA says he didn't do it. The prosecutor and victim still say he did, but DNA is definitive and tests found none of Derrick Williams' on the shirt the victim says her rapist wore when she was attacked in 1992.

Williams, of Palmetto, Fla., has always maintained his innocence; witnesses placed him at a family barbecue at the time of the assault and he offered blood and saliva samples to prove he was not the culprit, but the rapist had left no sperm samples they could be tested against and no means then existed to extract DNA from clothing.

So the case largely came down to the victim's word against his. On that basis, Williams spent 18 years in prison. He was freed this month, his conviction overturned thanks to a DNA test paid for by the Innocence Project of Florida.

And maybe you think this is the part of the story where Williams, 48, gets his life back, maybe with some financial compensation from the state that wronged him. You would be mistaken.

Williams is legally barred from even applying. Under a 2008 Florida law, no one who seeks compensation for wrongful incarceration can have prior felony convictions on his record. Williams has several nonviolent felonies, including larceny. So the state takes 18 years of his life, says in effect, "Oops, my bad" and that's supposed to be the end of it? Incredibly, yes.


The worst part is not that the law is absurdly mean-spirited and punitive. No, the worst part is that it is also absurdly short-sighted.

It has that in common with laws and policies all over the country that impinge upon a former felon's re-entry into the mainstream. In some states, an ex-felon loses the right to vote for life. Ex-felons can also be denied work, housing, loans, the right to serve on a jury.

But here's the thing: if you pinch off every avenue by which a former offender seeks to better him- or herself, what route do you leave open? Only the one that leads back to prison.

Politicians love to posture about being "tough on crime." They compete to see who can impose the more Draconian punishment — from candidate Bill Clinton executing a retarded man to Sheriff Joe Arpaio serving prisoners green bologna and moldy bread. It's good politics to do so and politics, make no mistake, is what this is all about. So we toss aside the old ideal that once a convict paid his or her "debt to society," he or she was entitled to a second chance. Granted, not every offender would take that chance. But to remove the chance from the equation altogether is to ensure that no one can. It is to put a thumb on the scales of rehabilitation.

If that makes life hard for the ex-con trying to straighten out his life, it's also no picnic for the citizen who gets mugged when the con decides it's impossible.

Note that when a reporter from the Bradenton Herald tried to reach Derrick Williams for an interview recently, his sister said he was out looking for a job. The economy being what it is, his resume being what it is, and the political climate being what it is, how would you assess his chances? They are poor at best. But we should never be so "tough on crime" as to make going straight impossible. At least, assuming our goal is to punish and rehabilitate.

Some days, it seems it's just to punish — and then punish some more.

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