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State owes the innocent their freedom

By MARTIN DYCKMAN
Published March 6, 2005


TALLAHASSEE - Wilton Dedge, an innocent man Florida imprisoned for 22 years, was lucky in one respect. Had he been falsely convicted for robbery rather than rape, there would have been no DNA to set him free.

Florida politicians are fooling only themselves if they think that the current post-conviction DNA testing law does away with wrongful imprisonment in the Sunshine State.

The only circumstance more outrageous than the resistance to compensating Dedge is the Legislature's pervasive indifference to the moral certainty that there are hundreds of equally innocent people still rotting behind Florida bars.

Such things are impossible to estimate reliably, but one can guess. From death row alone, 24 people have gone free, most of them clearly exonerated. DNA vindicated another after he died in prison. There are more than 200 people serving lesser sentences for every one on death row.

The same kinds of blunders that ensnared Dedge figured frequently in those death row cases. For the minority of cases where DNA evidence exists, the law entitling prisoners to testing expires Oct. 1. That is only part of what's wrong with it. The vast majority of convicts, those who pleaded guilty or no contest, are excluded, even if they did it only to avoid harsher sentences. The state crime lab isn't equipped for some of the more sophisticated recently developed tests, which cost $2,500 privately. The Florida Innocence Initiative, a voluntary agency in Tallahassee, has only $30,000 in the bank to cope with nearly 300 accumulated requests from inmates. A similar project at Nova University has more than 300 cases waiting.

What happened to Dedge could happen to anyone. Even you.

If you have ever had a deja vu experience, the false certainty that you have seen someone or something before, that's how easy it is to be falsely accused and convicted. Police, prosecutors and jurors rely too heavily on eyewitnesses.

There is also a mental process called transference, in which witnesses identify a "suspect" they have seen in some other context. That's what happened to Dedge. The victim first told police she had been slashed and raped by a balding man who stood 6 feet tall and weighed 200 pounds. Dedge was 5 feet 5 inches tall, weighed 130 pounds and had a full head of hair. But she and her family had casually encountered Dedge and his family before, and on seeing him again at a convenience store she thought he resembled her assailant. She became more certain, and more wrong, as the case developed. Believing her, the Brevard Sheriff's Office and prosecutors relied on junk science and a flagrantly perjurious jailhouse snitch to put Dedge in prison and keep him there. The victim's mistakes were not malicious, but the authorities should have known better.

In an example reported by the Chronicle of Higher Education five years ago, a rape victim identified a prominent Australian psychologist and memory researcher as her attacker.

"Not only was his alibi airtight - he was being interviewed on live television at the time - but she had mistaken him for the rapist because she had seen his face on her television screen during the assault," the article said.

In another notorious Florida case, a woman who had been stabbed by a would-be rapist let police coax her into identifying a young man they considered a suspect. The assailant she had described wore dental braces. The innocent man they convicted didn't. The conviction was overturned and the state admitted its mistake, but by then it was too late to charge the actual perpetrator.

Florida sorely needs what North Carolina has: a blue-ribbon commission to identify the causes of wrongful convictions and recommend ways to avoid them. Darrell Stephens, the former St. Petersburg police chief who is now chief at Charlotte, is one of the members of the North Carolina Actual Innocence Commission. Among its first recommendations: "double blind" lineup procedures so that the police officer showing suspects or pictures to witnesses doesn't know who the suspect is.

Florida has its own model to follow, the gender bias commission that the Supreme Court established with legislative support 18 years ago. Janet Reno, who was sensitive to wrongful convictions as U.S. attorney general, would be a superb person to chair the Florida Actual Innocence Commission.

But such things don't happen unless someone in power cares enough to make them happen. Is there anyone who does?

Martin Dyckman's e-mail address is dyckman@sptimes.com

[Last modified March 6, 2005, 00:28:02]


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