Saturday, November 15, 2008

Our views: Crime and punishment

William Dillon’s new trial and expert counsel for Florida death row inmates

For nearly 28 years, William Dillon has sat in prison for a murder he says he didn’t commit.

Come January, he could walk out a free man.

In a dramatic turn Friday, Brevard Circuit Judge David Dugan ordered a new trial for the former Satellite Beach resident after the State Attorney’s Office dropped its opposition.

It was a moment too long in coming.

Tests several months ago proved Dillon’s DNA was not on a T-shirt that was a key piece of evidence at the 1981 trial that led to his conviction for the murder of James Dvorak in Indian Harbour Beach.

Yet incredibly, the State Attorney’s Office said that wasn’t a strong enough reason to reopen the case and fought to have Dillon’s motion for release or a new trial denied.

The DNA is not the only evidence that shouts for Dillon to get a new day before a jury of his peers.

Other information shows prosecutors relied on questionable testimony from a jailhouse snitch who appears to have lied and discounted a witness’ description of a hitchhiker who left behind the T-shirt that doesn’t point to Dillon.

They also admitted as evidence tainted witness reports, including from a woman who slept with an investigator on the case and later recanted her testimony, saying she’d been threatened with jail if she didn’t lie.

The case is hauntingly similar to that of Wilton Dedge, a Port St. John man who spent 22 years in prison for a 1982 rape before DNA evidence proved his innocence.

Then, as now, the State Attorney’s Office fought Dedge at every turn before he was finally cleared and freed in 2002.

Dillon will appear before Dugan for a bond hearing Tuesday that could lead to his release while he awaits his new trial. Whether or not the bond is approved, this much is clear:

Justice demands that Dillon have a new trial, and justice has delivered.

Faulty, flawed and incompetent.

Those are some of the words that describe attorneys who have too often represented Florida death row inmates making appeals in what studies of capital punishment in our state have called disgraceful jurisprudence.

The situation only got worse when former Gov. Jeb Bush and some lawmakers reduced a panel of highly specialized lawyers well-versed in post-conviction litigation and replaced them with a registry of ill-prepared private attorneys and limited the time they can spend defending clients.

The result was not surprising, with former Florida Supreme Court Justice Raoul Cantero saying their work was “some of the worst lawyering I’ve seen.”

The Supreme Court has recently stepped in, ruling that attorneys in post-conviction appeals can’t be punished for charging more hours beyond a state-imposed limit in their effort to provide the best representation possible.

There’s a solution to this problem:

The Legislature should reconstitute the specialized panel — called the Capital Collateral Regional Counsel — when it returns to work in March.

If the state wants to use the death penalty and the public agrees, then Florida has a moral obligation to ensure death-row inmates receive expert, not lousy, counsel to make certain the ultimate punishment is not wrongly inflicted.


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