Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 25, 2009
WEST PALM BEACH — Prosecutors about-faced Wednesday and agreed to DNA testing of some key evidence in the acase of Esdras Cardona, a Guatemalan dishwasher sentenced to 20 years in prison for the rape of a fellow employee at the Everglades Club in Palm Beach.
In what is known as the "toothbrush case," 34-year-old Cardona is linked in part to Melissa Legare's rape by a Colgate toothbrush found in her room that bore a virtually exact match to Cardona's DNA.
Cardona, identified confidently by Legare as her rapist, denies any part in the crime, and Innocence Project of Florida attorneys have pressed for DNA testing of critical evidence never fully vetted - the rape kit itself, hairs left on the bed and a T-shirt left at the scene by the perpetrator.
To that end, Innocence Project attorneys Seth Miller and Bobbi Madonna joined Assistant Public Defender Margaret Good-Earnest Wednesday in asking a judge for the tests that could either cinch Cardona's conviction or unravel the case against him.
Prosecutor Leigh Lassiter Miller had previously opposed that, saying it would not meet the legal requirement that the results would exonerate Cardona.
Miller surprised Circuit Judge Jonathan Gerber and Innocence Project attorneys when she announced that, after asking her superiors, she would agree to more advanced testing of vaginal swabs, a tampon and fingernail scrapings taken from Legare. Presumptive testing on the items before Cardona's trial elicited no DNA.
"We're certainly pleased that they finally saw the light," Miller said. The Inocence Project, a national organization that explores cases of possible wrongful conviction, has agreed to pay for private lab testing in Cardona's case.
Outside court, Miller would only of her turnabout: "I think it's the right thing to do."
But in court, she did not concede that that the test results will exonerate Cardona.
Still unresolved is what items will be tested by whom, when and where. Gerber ordered the defense attorneys to detail for him the procedures that would be used and how the evidence would preserved for future use.
The development was a turning point in what has been a years-long quest by Cardona for DNA testing. Prior to Cardona's conviction, his former attorney Michael Amezaga got approval from another judge and even an order freeing up more taxpayer dollars to cover the costly testing, yet never had it done.
Legare also wanted the testing done and and thought it had been, she previously told the Palm Beach Post.
"I'm very happy. Justice is based on ... seeking the whole truth," said attorney Aileen Josephs, a representative of the Guatemalan Embassy who has advocated for Cardona and was present Wednesday.
Cardona was working his second season at the exclusive Everglades Club, rinsing the china of the rich alongside fellow Guatemalans six nights a week for $7.37 an hour. Legare worked in the same kitchen. She has since publicly identified herself in a lawsuit filed against the club, arguing conditions there led to her rape.
Those who know Cardona say he is a mild-mannered, Christian man with a clean record and incapable of a sexual assault. His older brother, Manuel, from Key Largo, and fellow members from his West Palm Beach church were in court Wednesday to support him.
Manuel Cardona said his brother has always been very shy, particularly with women.
"I know in my heart he is innocent," Manuel Cardona said.