Saturday, December 20, 2008

Update: Attorneys seek probe of Sheriff’s, State Attorney's offices

Update: Attorneys seek probe of Sheriff’s, State Attorney's offices

BY JOHN A. TORRES • FLORIDA TODAY • December 11, 2008

Public defender James Russo, as well as attorneys with the Innocence Project of Florida, bashed the State Attorney’s Office today, and called for the appointment of a special prosecutor to investigate corruption within the office.

The announcement was made at a news conference one day after the state announced it would not retry William Dillon for murder. “I have read the comments of our state attorney and the continued attempt to justify the shameful decision-making in this case,” Russo said during an afternoon news conference. “This is a case where lawful evidence never existed in the first place.” The main target of derision was the repeated use in the early-1980s of since-disgraced expert dog handler John Preston. Preston, proven to be a fraud, testified in hundreds of Florida cases, including three in Brevard County that have been overturned: Dillon, Wilton Dedge and Juan Ramos. “This case is about a criminal conspiracy that exists in Brevard County,” said David Menschel, legal director for the Innocence Project of Florida. “This is not a secret. People know about it.” Dillon, 49, learned of the news Wednesday that the state would not seek to retry him. He spent 27 years in prison after being convicted of murdering James Dvorak of Indian Harbour Beach. Dillon’s attorneys have long pointed to the fraudulent dog handler, a jailhouse snitch and an investigator who slept with a key witness in the case as grounds for corruption. DNA testing on a key piece of evidence this summer seemed to clear Dillon. Dillon broke down several times during the news conference, especially when the notion was raised that there could be many people in prison who were not guilty. “It’s not about justice for some people. It’s about convictions,” he said. “I feel their pain. I’m not angry. This is compassion, sadness.” Attorneys with the Innocence Project of Florida spoke with the governor’s office Thursday morning, and are formulating a letter asking for Crist to appoint a special prosecutor with subpoena powers to come investigate the cases that Preston testified in. If the governor agrees, Seth Miller, executive director of the Innocence Project, said, then he expects to see many more exonerations. For example, he said there were more than 20 exonerations in Dallas after the governor appointed a special prosecutor to look into DNA cases there. “Dillon’s case is just one piece of the corruption in Brevard County,” Miller said. “We need to root out the bad actors. People have to pay for what they’ve done.” Backing up these claims is a retired Brevard County judge, who says the only way the expert dog handler involved in the Dillon case could have tracked anything was if he was previously given the information. Preston regularly testified for the State Attorney’s Office during the early-1980s, before being disqualified by Judge Gilbert Goshorn in 1984. Preston later was exposed by television journalist Geraldo Rivera, and many of the cases he testified in nationally were overturned. The Arizona Supreme Court went as far as calling him a “charlatan.” In a sworn affidavit dated Aug. 14, 2008, Goshorn said he believed Preston was used regularly by the State Attorney’s Office “to confirm the state’s preconceived notions.” “It is my belief that the only way Preston could achieve the results he achieved in numerous other cases was having obtained information about the case prior to the scent-tracking, so that Preston could lead the dog to the suspect or evidence in question,” Goshorn said in his affidavit. On Thursday, Russo said he was upset that State Attorney Norman Wolfinger’s office was not cooperating with calls for information regarding Preston and the cases in which he testified. Wolfinger, he explained, was a public defender with him on the team that helped clear Juan Ramos and which discredited Preston’s dog testimony. “Mr. Wolfinger is very well-versed in the quality of the dog testimony,” he said. “I’m surprised they are not going back to look at these cases.” But Wolfinger responded by saying defendants and their attorneys have been free to bring any motions they deem appropriate before the courts. “Evidentiary challenges to the admissibility of the dog evidence by defense attorneys began and was well-publicized before I became state attorney,” Wolfinger said.

Contact Torres at 242-3649 or

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