Sunday, December 21, 2008

Injustice's proof

December 21, 2008

Injustice's proof

Evidence flaws compel closer look at innocence claims

Two Florida men will have the opportunity this week to spend Christmas with their families. Not so remarkable -- until you realize that the state took 27 such Christmases from William Dillon, and 10 from Jimmy Ates. Both were incarcerated for crimes they almost certainly did not commit.

Ates is the most recent prisoner to be freed after authorities admitted they never had proper evidence to convict him. According to the Innocence Project of Florida, he's the first person in the country to be freed after the Federal Bureau of Investigation agreed that the key evidence against him -- a bullet "fingerprinting" technique known as Comparative Bullet Lead Analysis -- was little more than junk science.

According to an FBI ballistics analyst, the metallic composition of bullets used to kill Ates' wife, Norma Jean, matched bullets from a box of ammunition found in Jimmy Ates' house. Before FBI analyst Kathleen Lundy testified that the bullets matched, prosecutors in two judicial circuits had declined to prosecute Ates for his wife's murder, citing a lack of evidence. "Without (Lundy's) testimony, Ates never would have been convicted," said David Menschel, legal director of the Innocence Project of Florida.

Ates is free (unless Okaloosa County prosecutors decide to retry him, which seems unlikely) but the Innocence Project claims that the same dubious technique was used in 1,500 cases nationwide, and "compromised the integrity" of at least 16 Florida cases. That puts the burden on the state to take another look at these cases, disregarding the bullet-analysis testimony to see whether the cases still hold up. The state would be following the FBI's lead -- to its credit, the nation's top law-enforcement agency also is reviewing those cases, and it was an FBI notification that persuaded the state to reconsider the Ates case.

To ensure the most impartial review, Gov. Charlie Crist should appoint a special prosecutor who would look at each case identified by the Innocence Project, and take action free of any bias or need to protect past convictions.

That prosecutor also should dig into the facts behind Dillon's wrongful conviction. Dillon, released in November, was convicted in 1981 of murdering James Dvorak -- a guilty verdict built on a shaky collection of evidence, including a dog handler who identified Dillon by scent (a technique that has since been widely discredited), a jailhouse "snitch" who testified that Dillon had confessed to the crime and a T-shirt with the murdered man's blood on it. That T-shirt, originally seen as damning evidence against Dillon, eventually helped set him free: DNA testing on the shirt proved that Dillon was not the killer.

The most disturbing facet of Dillon's case centers on the snitch, Roger Dale Chapman. Evidence now proves that Dillon did not murder Dvorak -- yet Chapman had details of the crime that had not been publicly disclosed, a fact that lent his testimony credence. Since Dillon could not have been the source of the details, where did they come from?

The Innocence Project claims to have documented a long-standing problem in Brevard County involving the use of snitches. Crist should ask the special prosecutor to take a close look at all cases that have been identified as questionable. At the same time, he should work with the Legislature to write new guidelines, intended to reduce the chances of false-snitch testimony.

The fact that Dillon and Ates are home this holiday season is something to celebrate. But it also is cause to wonder: How many more innocent people will be spending this Christmas behind bars? More important: What does the state intend to do about it? Answering those questions should be a moral imperative for any leader who values justice.

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