Sunday, August 30, 2009

Involving the late dog hander John Preston

John Preston and his dog Harass II during a press conference at the sheriff's office. (1983 FLORIDA TODAY file)

About the investigation
In an effort to examine the most serious cases involving the late dog hander John Preston, FLORIDA TODAY reviewed grand jury indictments for rape and murder in Brevard County from 1981 through 1984. The Clerk of the Court Office identified 20 such murder and sexual assault cases.

FLORIDA TODAY spent days combing through archived trial records, including witness lists, motions, depositions and trial transcripts, and identified 16 rape and murder cases in which Preston played a key role.Clerks blacked out certain information from sexual assault cases to shield victims' identities, per state law.Trial records detailed the techniques Preston used with his dogs to implicate suspects. They also revealed how prosecutors bolstered Preston's credibility as a witness and how defense attorneys ultimately discredited him.

Still in prison
Four men indicted for rape or murder in the early 1980s remain incarcerated largely in part to evidence developed by discredited dog handler John Preston.

Gary Bennett, convicted of murdering his neighbor in 1983, based largely on evidence provided by Preston's dog. His lawyers are trying to obtain DNA evidence that would confirm or deny his involvement.

Mark Wayne Jones pleaded guilty to a double murder and rape in 1981 to avoid the death penalty after Preston's dog placed him at the scene of the crime and detected his victims' scent in his car. Jones is doing two life terms, plus 15 years.

Frank Berry is serving a 124-year sentence for rape after Preston's dog tied Berry to the scene.

Gary Dirk is serving life in prison for a 1984 rape in Satellite Beach. Although Preston's testimony helped build the case, he never testified because the prosecution and defense agreed to keep him off the stand.

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