Saturday, December 20, 2008

We think: Gov. Crist should order an investigation into dog handler's cases


We think: Gov. Crist should order an investigation into dog handler's cases

Wilton Dedge and William Dillon have more in common than the initials in their names.

Both were convicted of heinous crimes in Brevard County -- Mr. Dedge for rape, Mr. Dillon for murder. Both spent more than two decades of their lives behind bars. Both were finally released, thanks to DNA testing.

And both owe their loss of freedom, at least in part, to John Preston.

Mr. Preston is a one-time dog handler whose dogs performed tracking feats in the 1980s that bordered on miraculous. The news reports were astounding. Mr. Preston's dog could follow a human scent months -- even years -- after a crime was committed. Mr. Preston claimed his dog could track scents across water. It could find a murder weapon under water. It could even track a human scent that had ascended into trees, if only some crop-dusters would first fly overhead and spray some water on the trees so the scent could return to the ground.

Mr. Preston traveled the country with his wonder dog, wowing police and prosecutors and earning handsome fees. But Mr. Preston perhaps found his most ardent admirers in Brevard County, where the former Pennsylvania state trooper was called in to help solve some of the highest-profile crimes, and he made a terrific expert witness on the stand.

But there was a problem with many of Mr. Preston's claims: They were bunk.

Mr. Preston was exposed in 1984 after a Brevard County judge halted a trial and ordered a field test of Mr. Preston's dog. Then-Circuit Judge Gilbert Goshorn set up a field test -- whose conditions were approved by Mr. Preston. But the animal, which Mr. Preston claimed in the aborted trial could track a six-month-old scent, couldn't track one that was four days old. He reportedly left town, failing to show up for a second test.

In an affidavit provided to the Sentinel, Mr. Goshorn, a respected jurist who also served as an appellate judge in Daytona Beach, said last summer, "I estimate that the dog did not even make it 100 feet before losing its way even though the initial direction of the track was clear. The dog did not properly follow either course as it was set out the previous day. Preston tried three or four times.

"The dog simply could not track anything."

What made the affidavit astonishing, however, were Mr. Goshorn's conclusions: "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 the evidence in question.

"In short, I believe that Preston was regularly retained to confirm the state's preconceived notions about cases, in an effort to provide independent scientific evidence."

The idea of collusion between Brevard County authorities and Mr. Preston in the '80s might be written off as ancient history except for some inconvenient likelihoods: There might be others who were convicted and still in jail as a result of Mr. Preston's testimony, while others who have been freed might carry wrongful convictions on their records.

A group called the Innocence Project of Florida, which has crusaded for Messrs. Dedge and Dillon, has called on Gov. Charlie Crist to order an independent review of all cases involving Mr. Preston and his wonder dog, and the possible complicity of local authorities.

Given the circumstances, it's hard to conceive that Mr. Crist would not act. Messrs. Dedge and Dillon are walking, breathing examples of a decades-old injustice. The governor cannot tolerate the idea that this stink might linger over other cases.

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