Monday, July 27, 2009

Investigations and elections provide new hope for justice

Scott Maxwell


July 26, 2009

State Attorney Norm Wolfinger has finally launched an investigation into the tale of twisted justice that involves false testimony, wrongfully imprisoned men and a supposedly magic dog in Brevard County.

The investigation, which he confirmed Friday afternoon, centers on discredited dog handler John Preston.

The review comes much too late for the men Preston helped convict — two of whom spent more than 20 years behind bars before they were exonerated and freed.

But others are still in prison or have been released and are living with felony records.

And, for the first time, politicians statewide are getting involved.

In fact, when contacted last week, all but one of the leading candidates for governor and attorney general vowed to look into the Preston cases, if elected.

Democratic candidate for governor Alex Sink said such a review was simply "logical," given what's known.

Republican A.G. hopeful Jeff Kottkamp said, "Equal justice for all is a guiding principle of our society. Obviously a case of wrongful incarceration — or in this instance, cases ... is something we cannot tolerate."

Kottkamp's passionate remarks stand in stark contrast to the uninterested and dismissive responses from both his boss, Gov. Charlie Crist, and the man he wants to replace, Attorney General Bill McCollum.

Despite repeated calls to investigate the Preston cases — and the possibility that others may have been wrongfully convicted — both Crist and McCollum have sat on the sidelines, saying that getting involved is simply not their job.

Both are now seeking higher offices.

The wonder dog

It all started back in the early 1980s when Preston, a former state trooper from Pennsylvania, began wowing juries with what seemed like a wonder dog.

Preston claimed his German shepherd could do all kinds of things that most dogs could not — tracking scents across water, through treetops, even years after they were left.

The feats may sound ridiculous for any canine that's not wearing a cape and doesn't fly.

But prosecutors and the juries ate it up — until one judge finally put Preston and his dog to the test.

During a 1984 trial, Judge Gilbert Goshorn asked Preston and his dog to track a fresh scent, but the two failed miserably and Preston left town.

"The dog simply could not track anything," Goshorn would later say in an affidavit. "In short, I believe that Preston was regularly retained to confirm the state's preconceived notions about cases."

At that moment in 1984, every one of the cases in which Preston testified should've been reviewed.

So says State Sen. Dan Gelber, a former prosecutor and one of two Democrats hoping to face the Republican Kottkamp in the attorney general's race next fall. "The nightmare of any prosecutor is to put an innocent person in jail," Gelber said. "It's an abomination of the system."

His Democratic opponent, Dave Aronberg, agreed. "The attorney general has an obligation to do justice, no matter what. And justice is not just convictions," he said. "I will look at this. I will not ignore it."

None of the three candidates for attorney general vowed to do anything as specific as impaneling a statewide grand jury. Nor did they promise to free a single soul or overturn a single case. Nor should they. In fact, no one is asking them to.

All they have vowed to do is look into the cases — which is all anyone has asked.

New perspectives?

Until now, Attorney General McCollum's only response was that all this was beyond his "jurisdiction."

But then last week, the man who wants to be your next governor tweaked that response just a bit. Said spokeswoman Sandi Copes: "... upon further consideration of this situation, he would invite these individuals to seek relief through clemency."

Clemency places the responsibility on the shoulders of those who were imprisoned. But it took two of the men Preston helped imprison more than 20 years — and the help of national groups like the Innocence Project — to finally win their freedom.

That's why Brevard-Seminole Public Defender James Russo and the Innocence Project have called for wholesale review of the cases.

Wolfinger, who took office after Preston had been discredited, said Friday that he would welcome such a review.

"I certainly do not want an innocent person to be in jail," he said.

In the meantime, Wolfinger said his office will continue doing it's own "re-review."

Wolfinger calls it a "re-review" because he argues that his office looked into the Preston cases long ago.

"The perception is that nothing has ever been done and that hundreds of people are in jail," he said. "Well, that's not true. This office does care and has cared."

Still, it's obvious that Wolfinger's original effort wasn't a complete success — as evidenced by the fact that courts freed two men long after his "review" was complete.

So far, Wolfinger says his office has found only four Preston-related convicts still behind bars.

And he feels confident that three of those four men belong there.

He would not comment on the third, Gary Bennett — because another nationally respected group believes it will soon prove Bennett's innocence as well. The groundwork for an appeal is under way.

It's good that Wolfinger is taking a closer look and compiling a complete list of all the Preston-related cases.

But it's even better that most of the statewide candidates are vowing to get involved.

Because after a quarter century and three wrongful convictions tied to the same man, an independent investigation is long overdue.

Scott Maxwell can be reached at 407-420-6141 or

No comments: