Monday, July 27, 2009

Trials in which dog was used to be reviewed


Responding to the "controversy that has swirled around an important issue," State Attorney Norman Wolfinger has ordered his staff to review murder and sexual battery cases that involved dog handler John Preston.

"Despite the fact that I was not the state attorney at the time of these controversial cases, I accept the responsibility of seeing justice served," he said in a statement released Friday. "I asked my staff to re-review the cases we can identify as involving John Preston. "To the best of my knowledge, there are four people in prison today who had cases in which Preston and one of his dogs were used."

Critics have called on Wolfinger or Gov. Charlie Crist to authorize an investigation, or appoint a special prosecutor, to probe the use of Preston and his dogs. Preston, who died last year, helped law enforcement agencies and testified regularly in Brevard County between 1981 and 1984.

Preston said his dogs could track scents that were years old and even underwater. He was discredited in 1984.

Three Brevard men -- Juan Ramos, Wilton Dedge and William Dillon -- have been released in recent years after being exonerated or having their cases overturned. Preston, who once said he testified in about 100 Brevard cases, testified against all three men.

The four imprisoned men whose cases are being investigated by Wolfinger's staff are:

Gary Bennett, sentenced to life in prison in the 1983 murder of a female neighbor in Palm Bay.

Frank Berry, sentenced to 124 years in prison in the rape of a Merritt Island woman in 1981.

Gary Dirk, sentenced to life in prison in a burglary and rape in 1985.

And Mark Wayne Jones, serving double life sentences in the murders of two Titusville women to whom he had given a ride in 1981.

Wolfinger said he ordered a similar examination in 2004 -- when Dedge was exonerated after spending 22 years in prison on a rape charge -- to identify cases "where limited evidence raised a question of actual guilt."

Seth Miller, executive director of the Innocence Project of Florida, said Wolfinger needs to look deeper.

"It is not enough to just look at people who are currently in prison when the potential misconduct took place a quarter century ago," he said. "What about those who entered pleas or were convicted of crimes other than rape or murder based on Preston's miraculous claims? Or those who have been released and are now wrongfully classified as sex offenders, or those who are now deceased?

"Shouldn't they all have the same opportunity as Ramos, Dedge and Dillon to clear their names?"

Attorneys for Bennett, working in conjunction with the Innocence Project, are seeking the release of evidence for DNA testing. Because Wolfinger worked on Bennett's murder case as an assistant public defender, Crist assigned it to another state attorney's office.

Wolfinger can't comment on Bennett's case, but he has expressed confidence that the other convictions are sound.

"We believe Berry, Jones and Dirk are in fact guilty and that the public is being served and protected by the incarceration of these men," he wrote in Friday's statement.

FLORIDA TODAY has found 16 cases from the period in which Preston was involved in the investigation or testified in court.

Wolfinger promised Friday to post information regarding the four cases on his office's Web site and said he has asked permission of FLORIDA TODAY and the Orlando Sentinel newspapers to reprint stories about Preston published in the 1980s.

"I believe this information should be shared with you -- the public," Wolfinger said. "I want our citizens to be able to believe in the protection offered them by our criminal justice system."

FLORIDA TODAY staff writer Jeff Schweers contributed to this report. Contact Torres at 242-3649 or

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