Wilton Dedge feels his life was taken from him after serving 22 years in jail. He plans to file a lawsuit and demands that state officials investigate the prosecutors' conduct in his case.
By Associated Press
Published August 13, 2004
COCOA - Wilton Dedge is a free man, DNA evidence proving he didn't rape a 17-year-old in 1981. But he's not sure where to start rebuilding his life after 22 years behind bars.
"I never got to have kids. I never got to get married," Dedge said Thursday, hours after he walked out of the Brevard County Detention Center. "Now I've got to start, and I've got nothing. I don't even own clothes."
Dedge, now 42, was freed from his life sentence after advanced DNA testing of a semen sample taken from the Brevard girl proved Dedge did not commit the crime on Dec. 8, 1981.
In his first few hours tasting freedom, Dedge tried to grasp a world that has changed immeasurably - cell phones, car radios, urban sprawl.
"We went to Publix this morning, and that was a trip in itself," said Dedge, flashing a smile through a slight frown that seemed permanent.
Seminole-Brevard State Attorney Norm Wolfinger said Thursday the victim "was devastated by the news" that Dedge was not her attacker. He said there are no other suspects.
"My heart goes out to both Mr. Dedge and the victim in this case," Wolfinger said.
When Dedge was first named as a suspect, he assumed he would quickly set the matter straight with police. But he fell into a nightmare from which he couldn't escape.
Eight witnesses testified Dedge was working miles away, in New Smyrna Beach, at the time of the attack. Still, he was convicted in May 1982 despite the prosecution's shaky case.
The rape victim described her attacker as being about 6 feet, weighing 160 to 180 pounds. Dedge is 5 feet 6 and weighed about 125 at the time. The prosecution produced controversial scent evidence provided by a police dog.
An appeal over the scent evidence was upheld, but the second trial went even worse and Dedge was again convicted in August 1984.
That time, a jailhouse snitch said Dedge confessed to him. Clarence Zacke, a seven-time convicted felon, then had his sentence for conspiracy to commit several murders lowered from 108 years to 60.
"I was brought up to look at the good in people," Dedge said. "Going through all this, I lost a lot of faith in people."
While in prison, Dedge first heard about DNA evidence while watching television. He eventually was put into contact in 1996 with the Innocence Project, a New-York based criminal justice resource center.
What followed was a tortuous trudge through the legal system, ending Wednesday when Wolfinger asked a judge to free Dedge.
Milton Hirsch, a Miami attorney representing Dedge since 1997, said the case established a precedent. When Dedge sued in 1999 to obtain the evidence that helped exonerate him, the state had no rule that provided for DNA testing in a closed case. In 2001, the Legislature passed a bill allowing prisoners to obtain that evidence.
Dedge's lawyers said there are plans to file a federal civil rights lawsuit, and they demanded that state officials investigate the prosecutors' conduct.
"I deserve all my rights back, which I'll probably have to fight for," Dedge said. "There's quite a few things I believe (Wolfinger) owes me."
"I am truly sorry that this happened to Mr. Dedge," Wolfinger said. "It is never our purpose or intention to convict an innocent person."
Jenny Greenberg, director of the Florida Innocence Initiative, said more than 300 prisoners have requested assistance, yet "we have only one lawyer working on this issue full time, and that is me."