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    DNA finding fails to win man new trial

    By SYDNEY P. FREEDBERG

    © St. Petersburg Times,
    published June 26, 2001


    Nineteen years ago, the Brevard State Attorney's Office used a pubic hair found on a rape victim's bedsheet to help send Wilton A. Dedge to prison for life.

    Prosecutors introduced the hair to help build a case against him. They told the jury that a scientific expert's work showed the hair could have come from Dedge.

    New DNA testing reveals that the prosecutors were wrong: The hair does not belong to Dedge.

    Still, they refuse to give him a new trial.

    "The hair could have ended up getting on the sheet in a number of ways," Brevard's chief assistant state attorney, Robert Wayne Holmes, said Monday. He prosecuted Dedge in 1984 and remains convinced of his guilt. "(The new test) clearly does not exonerate him."

    Milton Hirsch, a Miami lawyer representing Dedge on behalf of the New York-based Innocence Project, is outraged.

    "Twenty years have gone by and now they're saying, "It doesn't mean a thing? Yes, he did the rape, but then after (the rape), some meddling third party dropped off a couple of pubic hairs?'

    "That doesn't make any sense," Hirsch said.

    Dedge, 39, an inmate at Cross City Correctional Institution, was twice convicted of raping and slashing a 17-year-old woman with a knife in her home in Brevard County on Florida's east coast.

    The guilty verdicts hinged on testimony by a notorious jailhouse snitch, contested scent evidence provided by a police dog and a disputed eyewitness identification.

    There also was the scientific evidence -- a small amount of sperm found in the victim and two hairs that technicians scraped from two sheets and a pillowcase.

    There was no testing available at the time to match the semen or the hair to an individual.

    But at Dedge's second trial, in 1984, prosecutor Holmes relied on lab work by David K. Jernigan, an analyst for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, to explain the hair evidence.

    Jernigan said a light brown pubic hair that he examined under a microscope might have come from Dedge. "The differences were not sufficient to entirely eliminate Dedge," Jernigan wrote in his report.

    Dedge's defense attorney argued that his client was innocent and that the hair could not be his.

    Today, DNA testing has proved hair evidence to be notoriously unreliable. Back then, the hair might have made the difference in a weak case.

    Although the 17-year-old rape victim twice identified Dedge as the man who slashed her with a razor knife and sexually assaulted her, she originally described her attacker as about 6 feet tall and between 185 and 200 pounds. Dedge, who has said he was somewhere else at the time of the attack almost 20 years ago, is 5 feet 6 and weighed 130 at the time.

    Appellate courts upheld his conviction, but one appeals judge later called evidence against him "minimal."

    About four years ago, the Innocence Project, led by attorney Barry Scheck, began requesting DNA testing for the former mechanic.

    Prosecutor Holmes resisted. Among other things, he argued that the time for appeals had passed and it was too late for Dedge to get his conviction overturned.

    Hirsch countered by filing a federal lawsuit accusing Brevard County of violating due process by not giving Dedge access to evidence that could prove his innocence. That evidence, stored in the court clerk's office, included a rape kit of anal and vaginal swabs, as well as the hairs.

    A judge dismissed the federal case, but last year, Brevard Circuit Judge Bruce W. Jacobus ordered the court to release the evidence for DNA testing.

    ReliaGene Technologies, a highly regarded New Orleans company, first tried to test semen found inside the victim. The sample was either too small or too old. Next the firm examined the hairs through another type of DNA testing. According to a report dated June 14, neither belonged to Dedge.

    From his prison cell, Dedge was jubilant, attorney Hirsch said, but it didn't last long.

    Holmes said he will oppose Dedge's motion for a new trial because the original jury was aware that the hair may not have come from him. Dedge would be convicted again, Holmes said.

    Dedge's case helped inspire a Florida law that will help prisoners who claim they are innocent prove it through DNA testing. The law goes into effect in October.

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