Innocence Project of Florida helps free 7 wrongly convicted men
By Helen Eckinger Sentinel Staff Writer
March 30, 2009
Joe Dillon holds a 1994 photo of himself, his wife, Traci, and his stepbrother William (right). Cleared of a 1981 murder by DNA evidence, William Dillon is seeking $1.35M in compensation from the state. (Ryan Pelham, Orlando Sentinel / December 5, 2007)
No one knows exactly how many people are behind bars in Florida for crimes they did not commit.
"Depending on whether you talk to people who are prosecution-oriented or defense-oriented, you're going to get widely divergent numbers," said Michael Seigel, a University of Florida law professor. "The criminal justice system does a pretty good job; there isn't widespread error. But there is error ... one person who is innocent and is in jail is one too many.
"That's where the Innocence Project of Florida comes in. Since its creation, it has helped exonerate seven men who, among them, were incarcerated for 144 years. Two were convicted of crimes in Central Florida — specifically, Brevard County: Wilton Dedge, cleared in 2004 of a 1981 rape; and William Dillon, cleared last year in a 1981 murder.
"When we exonerate someone, people say the system worked. The system did not work; the system failed," said Seth Miller, who directs the Innocence Project from Tallahassee. "These folks have been exonerated not because of the system but in spite of the system."
The Innocence Project was founded in 2003, in response to a deadline at the time that limited the time period in which convicts could seek DNA testing that might exonerate them.
Today, the project employs three lawyers, including Miller, an assistant director, a social worker, a part-time Web site and mail fundraiser, several part-time intake workers and several student volunteers.
Miller declined to release the project's operating budget, but said 95 percent of its funds come from grants from private foundations, and the rest comes from individual donors.
The project fields 300 to 500 requests a year to take on new cases.
"Everyone says they're innocent, so we have a pretty stringent screening process," Miller said. "It makes the best cases rise to the top
."The key restriction involves DNA. Although it is developing procedures for taking on non-DNA cases, the project now only takes cases with biological evidence that, if tested, could prove a convict is innocent.
Sixty to 70 percent of the requests are rejected because no DNA is involved — only about 10 percent of criminal cases yield DNA evidence, Miller said. Another 30 percent are nixed because the crime occurred out of state or in federal jurisdiction — the project only takes Florida cases.
If a case meets the initial criteria, the convict is sent a 13-page questionnaire about aspects of the case. If none of the answers eliminate the suspect, the project begins an extensive document collection process, gathering trial transcriptions, evidence logs and lab reports. Sometime it enlists the aid of its private investigator.
If the reviewer thinks the case has merit, it is presented to the project's legal team at a weekly meeting.
"We have pretty limited resources, so us taking new cases has to be a really measured and reasoned decision," Miller said.
In the Dedge and Dillon cases, DNA testing pointed the finger of guilt elsewhere.
Tests on semen samples from the 1981 rape in Sharpes showed that Dedge could not have committed the crime.
The turning point in the Dillon case occurred when DNA from two other people was found on a T-shirt saturated with the victim's blood.
Dillon won the right to a new trial, but prosecutors declined to retry him. Brevard State Attorney Norm Wolfinger said prosecutors are always ready to right a wrong when it is found.
"[T]he Innocence Project offers another avenue for bringing new evidence before the courts. So long as that information is accurate, reliable and proves innocence, it makes no difference where that information comes from," Wolfinger wrote in an e-mail.
The project is currently litigating on behalf of about a dozen inmates, including two from Central Florida: Thiamond King, who was convicted in 1991 of an Orange County rape, and John Day, who has been serving time since 1987 for a Brevard County rape.
It is also preparing to litigate on behalf of another dozen inmates, but Miller declined to release their names.After a client is exonerated, the project helps them find a suitable attorney to help the client seek compensation from the state.
Dedge received $2 million, and Dillon is seeking $1.35 million under a law passed last year that allows those exonerated to receive $50,000 per year of wrongful incarceration.The organization also does what it can to help its clients adjust to life outside prison.
The project's social worker begins working with clients while they're still imprisoned to chart a transition plan. It makes sure that its clients have a place to live when they're released and job prospects, and sets them up with vocational training if they're interested.
"What we want is when all the hubbub dies down they're able to meet their essential needs," Miller said. "It's not something like where we get them set up and send them on their way. It's an ongoing process.
"Helen Eckinger can be reached at 352-742-5934 or firstname.lastname@example.org.