Sunday, October 18, 2009

Our views: Justice still denied

Wolfinger should reverse course on Dillon pay, state probe must take place

Stupefying and inexcusable. Those words describe State Attorney Norman Wolfinger's refusal to lend his support to proposed state compensation of Satellite Beach native William Dillon for his wrongful conviction in the 1981 murder of James Dvorak.

Dillon spent 27 years of his life behind bars, based on shoddy and potentially criminal practices in the Seminole-Brevard State Attorney's office -- including use of fraudulent dog handler John Preston -- in his trial.

Last year, he was finally vindicated and released after testing performed on a T-shirt worn by Dvorak's killer's showed no DNA match to Dillon's.

Charges were dropped and Wolfinger said a review showed "a jury today would not find Mr. Dillon guilty beyond and to the exclusion of every reasonable doubt."

But his release is not enough. Dillon also deserves to be compensated monetarily.

An Uphill Fight

The Innocence Project of Florida and others are working to get the payment, as is Attorney Sandy D'Alemberte, former president of Florida State University Law School.

Sen. Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, and Rep. Ritch Workman, R-Melbourne, much to their credit, have stepped up as sponsors of bills to help Dillon in the Legislature.

It won't be an easy fight, but, as Haridopolos told FLORIDA TODAY's editorial board Wednesday, "It's about doing the right thing."

A law passed in 2008 pays wrongfully convicted persons $50,000 a year for their time in prison, but special consent is needed in Dillon's case because state prosecutors never said he was technically exonerated and because he had a minor drug charge from his teens.

We fear those technicalities could perpetuate the gross injustice done to Dillon. Wolfinger has made it more likely by sending a letter to the Special Master who heads up the "claim bills" for the Florida Senate saying he won't support compensation for Dillon.

That opposition betrays a vindictiveness that does not speak well of Wolfinger. He should drop it, and, in the name of justice, champion the cause of compensation for Dillon.

More Stonewalling

Wolfinger's no-vote follows a pattern of closing ranks on investigating possible past corruption in the office, set since the fight to free Wilton Dedge.

Dedge, a Port St. John resident who served 22 years for a rape DNA evidence later showed he didn't commit, was exonerated in 2004, but no thanks to Wolfinger's office.

In a letter by Innocence Project lawyer Milton Hirsch that FLORIDA TODAY published in October 2004, Hirsh said Wolfinger's office fought the exoneration process every step of the way.

He also said Wolfinger, along with assistant state attorneys, "managed to keep Dedge in prison for yet another three years -- knowing full well that he was innocent."

The state attorney's office followed a similar course in the Dillon case, including stalling tactics that delayed his release from prison after DNA evidence excluded him as Dvorak's killer.

Wolfinger has since stonewalled on repeated calls for a thorough probe of possible prosecutorial misconduct in cases that involved Preston.

He's done it even though former prosecutor and Titusville resident Sam Bardwell and retired Brevard Circuit Judge Gilbert Goshorn say the dog-handler was used to trump up evidence to win an unknown number convictions in the 1980s.

A narrow review Wolfinger ordered in August focusing only on murder and battery cases linked to Preston and those now in prison is insufficient.

Restore Public Trust

The truth is an in-house probe of the state attorney's office can't be trusted to go beyond a whitewash, especially since Wolfinger appears to put a higher priority on protecting colleagues who may have broken the law than shining the light of truth on past actions.

That's why we again call on Gov. Charlie Crist and State Attorney General Bill McCollum to order a special grand jury investigation of use of the dog handler and of irregularities such as use of untrustworthy jailhouse snitches and tainted witnesses, practices that trampled defendants' rights to a fair trial.

If Crist and McCollum continue shirking their duty to investigate, Florida's next governor and attorney general should conduct a complete review of alleged prosecutorial abuses, as some candidates have already pledged.

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