Saturday, June 27, 2009

Crist should appoint prosecutor to probe alleged corruption at State Attorney's Office

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Crist should appoint prosecutor to probe alleged corruption at State Attorney's Office

June 21, 2009

Justice was repeatedly denied by the State Attorney’s Office in Brevard County in the early 1980s, including frequent use of fraudulent dog handler John Preston, now deceased, who helped the state convict dozens of people.

That includes trials for three Brevard County men who’ve since had their convictions overturned or charges dropped.

William Dillon of Satellite Beach served nearly 27 years in prison for a 1981 murder in Indian Harbour Beach before DNA testing in 2008 showed he couldn’t be linked to the crime.

Dillon was finally vindicated last year when charges were dropped and Brevard-Seminole State Attorney Norm Wolfinger said a review showed “a jury today would not find Mr. Dillon guilty beyond and to the exclusion of every reasonable doubt.”

Wilton Dedge was convicted of rape in 1981 but freed in 2004 after DNA evidence proved the Port St. John man’s innocence.

Juan Ramos was tried and sentenced to death for rape and murder in 1983 in Brevard, although no physical evidence linked him to the crime. Ramos was acquitted in 1987.

Evidence of fraud

Now alarm bells are ringing loudly that more innocent men may be unjustly kept behind bars because of potential prosecutorial misconduct involving Preston:

-- Titusville attorney and former Brevard prosecutor Sam Bardwell, who encountered Preston in a 1981 rape case, says then-State Attorney Doug Cheshire, also now dead, as well as the Brevard Sheriff’s Office and most law enforcement officers at the time knew Preston was a charlatan.

“I left the State Attorney’s Office because I could not abide by the fabrication of evidence,” Bardwell says.

-- Retired 18th Circuit and appellate Judge Gil Goshorn confirmed Cheshire relied heavily on Preston in a number of cases, along with questionable jailhouse snitches.

“Cheshire’s office often relied on such evidence of dubious reliability,” Goshorn said in a sworn affadavit in 2008.

-- The Innocence Project is looking into a fourth Brevard case involving Preston, that of Gary Bennett, sentenced to life in prison for the 1984 murder of Palm Bay resident Helen Nardi.
Seth Miller, executive director of the group, says Preston was being fed information that helped him manufacture evidence and the state win convictions.

-- Preston was involved in a reported 60 Brevard cases, with more than 15 of those identified in FLORIDA TODAY archives. He earned $37,429 for work done in the first half of 1984, including the Bennett trial.

Wolfinger should be aggressively investigating the allegations of abuses in the office in that era, but so far is stonewalling, putting the onus for unearthing tainted justice on the convicted, sitting in their jail cells.

His refusal further erodes the public’s trust in Brevard’s justice system, damaged recently by the botched Dedge and Dillon cases.

A full probe

Wolfinger’s cop-out leaves no recourse but for Gov. Charlie Crist to start a full investigation.
We’ve called for that repeatedly since the gross mishandling of the Dedge case came to light five years ago. The Innocence Project has also called for Crist to appoint a special prosecutor to look into the Preston cases.

But Crist is running away, saying through spokesman Sterling Ivey he believes it’s “a judicial issue and should be handled on a case-by-case analysis through the judicial system.”

Running for the U.S. Senate no doubt makes him want to steer clear of controversial issues. But as a former Florida attorney general he should understand shoving corruption under the rug simply because it’s in the past is a corrosive and dishonest policy.

Justice cries out for answers in the Preston cases.

That includes finding out for certain if those convicted using tainted evidence are indeed guilty and keeping them behind bars.

But also making sure any who may be wrongly convicted — like Dedge, Dillon and Ramos — get a new day in court. And that any justice system or law enforcement officials who betrayed the public good in cahoots with Preston are found and, if still alive, prosecuted to the full extent of the law.

Only a full probe can render those judgments.

Crist should order one immediately.

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