Dedge was given a second trial because prosecutors at his first relied upon
discredited evidence that a dog had picked up Dedge's scent in the victim's
Innocence lost: An independent investigation should be conducted to find
out who is accountable for an innocent man spending 22 years behind bars.
St. Petersburg Times Newspaper Editorial, Florida 8-22-04
Wilton Dedge is a man who spent half his life in a Florida prison for
a crime he didn't commit. He was convicted of a violent rape in 1982
and was released 22 years later, thanks to the tireless efforts of
a group of lawyers convinced of his innocence.
But what transforms Dedge's tale from a personal tragedy to a public
travesty is the way the prosecutors spent years blocking efforts by Dedge
to prove his innocence. Then, when it became likely they had the wrong man,
prosecutors stood in the jailhouse door and fought every effort to free him,
even to the point of arguing that his innocence didn't matter.
The case against Dedge was weak from the start. At least six of his
co-workers said that he was working at his job at an auto body shop
when the brutal rape was supposed to have occurred many miles away.
The victim first identified her attacker as a six-foot-tall bald man,
when Dedge was five-foot-six and had a full head of hair. But she later
said Dedge was the perpetrator.
Dedge was given a second trial because prosecutors at his first relied
upon discredited evidence that a dog had picked up Dedge's scent in the victim's
room. At his second trial, a big deal was made of pubic hair found
at the crime scene. A forensics witness from the Florida Department
of Law Enforcement said the hair could be Dedge's. It wasn't, as it
turns out, but that was only discovered 16 years later after a DNA
test. Also at the second trial, notorious jailhouse snitch Clarence
Zacke testified that Dedge had confessed the crime to him. Zacke's general
cooperation with prosecutors earned him 120 years off his sentence. Dedge
was convicted again and sentenced to life in prison.
In 1996, Dedge first started asking for DNA tests on the pubic hair.
But Brevard County prosecutor Robert Wayne Holmes vigorously and repeatedly
fought the requests. Help for Dedge came from Barry Scheck and Nina
Morrison of the Innocence Project and Milton Hirsch, a Miami defense
attorney, who were all working pro bono. With that kind of legal firepower,
the DNA test was finally done in late 2000. The hair was found not
to be Dedge's.
But rather than admit an error, Holmes changed strategies. He said
the pubic hair was insignificant and Dedge should not be released on
that basis. For more than three years, Holmes and Assistant Attorney
General Bonnie Jean Parrish argued before Florida courts that regardless
of the result, the DNA test should not be considered since it occurred
before the enactment of statutory rules on DNA testing. And, they argued,
that in the interest of finality - the principle that the system is
harmed when criminal cases are repeatedly reopened - Dedge should remain
in prison regardless of whether he did the crime or not. After a second
DNA test was conducted on semen samples, excluding Dedge as the rapist,
prosecutors finally dropped the charges against him and he was released earlier
How these prosecutors can sleep at night is their problem. How they are still in their jobs is ours.
Seminole-Brevard State Attorney Norm Wolfinger is refusing to do an
internal investigation into how this injustice came about and whether
to hold anyone accountable for a man who lost 22 years of his life.
It is a typical close-the-ranks reaction, but there isn't a rug big
enough to sweep this one under.
It is essential that an independent investigation be conducted, including
whether the snitch Zacke was coached in any way by prosecutors. If
Wolfinger isn't willing, then the governor should appoint a commission
to investigate. If the governor's not interested, then the U.S. Justice
Department's Civil Rights Division should be enlisted. One way or another
a bright light needs to be shined on how things went so horribly wrong.
In addition, Dedge is deserving of substantial compensation, and the
Legislature should make that one of its first orders of business when it
reconvenes. The state spent hundreds of thousands of dollars putting Dedge
in prison and keeping him there. Now the state has the duty to dig
even deeper to try to compensate for what was done to him.
Money is only part of the recompense. Dedge also needs to know that
the people who helped to steal his youth will face their own judgment.
Being a prosecutor is a high privilege and with that comes the corresponding
responsibility to put truth-seeking above all other considerations.
When prosecutors are uninterested in evidence of a defendant's innocence,
they have lost their professional way. They should not only lose their
job but their license to practice law.