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Sheriff's Office blamed in suit

Michael Porter says the Sheriff's Office withheld information to get a conviction in a 1987 rape.

GRAHAM BRINK and RICHARD RAEKE
Published March 2, 2004

TAMPA - As Michael Porter awaited a jury's verdict 15 months ago, he swore to himself that his "agony" would end that day.

He had spent 14 years in prison for a rape he said he did not commit. The second trial was his last chance, he thought. The jury would set him free, he vowed, or he would kill himself.

That night, he walked out of jail a free man.

According to a federal lawsuit filed Monday against the Pasco County Sheriff's Office and one of its former detectives, Porter never would have been in such dire straits if not for the actions of the Sheriff's Office. The lawsuit contends that the former Pasco detective set Porter up by withholding evidence about another suspect who better matched the rapist's description.

"In my mind, in my heart, I believe this was done in a premeditated fashion," Porter said on Monday. ". . . I think they should have to go to prison and have to wear the 11 life sentences."

A spokesman for the Pasco Sheriff's Office declined to comment. James Gary Fairbanks, the former Pasco detective, also declined comment.

A Pasco jury convicted Porter in 1988 of repeatedly raping a nurse at a Holiday motel on U.S. 19. The prosecutor at the first trial produced no physical evidence linking Porter to the scene.

The prosecutor built his case around the victim's identification of Porter as the rapist, and testimony from Porter's ex-wife that Porter once used a belt to choke her during a brutal attack. The rape victim told investigators that her attacker used a leather Western belt in a similar fashion.

The judge sentenced Porter to 11 life prison terms without possibility of parole.

Porter maintained his innocence, but appeals courts repeatedly upheld the conviction or turned down his case for review. But in 1995, an investigator with the federal Public Defender's Office in Orlando discovered two police reports that the Sheriff's Office did not turn over before trial.

One of those reports identified a man who was staying at the La-Rue 19 Motel on the night of the rape, which occurred in June 1987. That man, Tony Hawkins, who died in 1990, fit the initial description the 50-year-old rape victim gave to deputies.

The reports, written soon after the rape, also stated that the victim said she did not get a good look at her attacker's face. The victim, however, did not waver when she identified Porter in a 1987 pretrial hearing.

She then testified at trial that she knew all along that Porter was the rapist, but fearing for her safety, she waited until he was arrested before identifying him. She said that during the attack, he threatened to kill her if she ever identified him.

In 2002, an appeals court granted Porter a new trial, stating that the withholding of evidence was "highly disturbing."

"Our government can do better than this," the court wrote.

Weeks before Porter's second trial, officials with the Pasco-Pinellas State Attorney's Office announced that their office had unearthed an internal memo that cast doubt on the rape victim's courtroom identification of Porter as her attacker.

"(The victim) stated that she did not say anything to the police as she was not 100 percent convinced that it was the defendant," the memo read. "She now believes it was the defendant but again indicated she is not 100 percent sure."

At the second trial, the jurors got to hear testimony about the previously withheld reports. They acquitted Porter on all the charges.

Porter's attorney, Barry Cohen, said Monday that the detectives who originally investigated the case were more interested in securing a conviction than "seeking justice." He said they "manipulated and twisted the facts" to fit their theory of the case.

"It's like shooting an arrow and then going and drawing a circle around it," Cohen said. ". . . He could easily have spent the rest of his life in a cage."

The suit also claims the Sheriff's Office had a "policy, practice, procedure and/or custom" which permitted employees to "illegally and wrongfully suppress" evidence. The Sheriff's Office also failed to properly train employees on their obligations to provide evidence to the defense, the suit states.

In an emotional interview, Porter said he has slowly adjusted to life outside of prison. When he first got out, he had no money, no home and no car. He had missed his mother's funeral and had lost touch with his three children. He couldn't figure out how to use a modern coffee maker or why a motel room came with a card instead of a key to unlock the door.

He still often fights back tears. He has re-established the beginnings of a relationship with his 16-year-old daughter. He has not spoken with his two older children.

Porter, 43, lives in Pasco County and is working for a concrete company. He also has a fiancee. Porter said the suit, no matter the outcome, will not make all the pain go away. "It's never going to make me 27 years old again," Porter said. "It's never going to bring my mother back alive."

- Graham Brink can be reached at 813 226-3365 or brink@sptimes.com

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