Dedge prosecutor details decision-making process

Dedge prosecutor details decision-making process

first_img‘I am truly sorry that he got convicted wrongly and he spent 22 years in prison’ Jan Pudlow Senior Editor The prosecutor who sent Wilton Dedge to prison for two life terms for a rape he didn’t commit said he is sorry for the injustice done to an innocent man, but he doesn’t know how to avoid making the same mistakes again. “You know, there’s only one way to feel about it, and that is to feel like it is a terrible thing for someone to have been convicted for something that they didn’t do,” said Assistant State Attorney Chris White, of the 18th Judicial Circuit, in Sanford. “That’s the only logical way to feel about it and the only emotional response that you could expect.” Once DNA evidence finally cleared Dedge in 2004, after he spent 22 years in prison, White said, “You go through a stage of disbelief. Because we honestly believed that he had committed the offense.. . . I still wanted to believe the victim, but yet I had DNA staring me in the face that’s saying it’s not him. I am forced to the conclusion that it was not Wilton Dedge, despite how strongly she believed it was.” Dedge, 44, was arrested when he was 20 and wrongly convicted twice for a brutal rape, spending half of his life locked in prison. Dedge is the first person in Florida exonerated by DNA evidence to receive compensation from the state. During December’s special legislative session, legislators apologized to Dedge and gave him $2 million in compensation. But, Dedge noted, he had never received a face-to-face apology from his prosecutors. Asked whether he would apologize to Dedge, White responded: “I wouldn’t have any problem with telling him that I am truly sorry that he got convicted wrongly and he spent 22 years in prison.” White added that he believed the $2 million in compensation was fair. But he was less certain about what can be learned from mistakes made in the Dedge case built on the testimony of a jailhouse snitch, Clarence Zacke; a discredited dog handler with a dog who could supposedly track cold scents months and years later; and a 17-year-old victim who described her rapist as 6 feet tall and 180-200 pounds, though Dedge is a 5-foot-5-inch, slender man. Jurors also disregarded alibi testimony from six co-workers at an auto body shop who said Dedge was at work at the time of the crime. “It’s not a nice thing to happen to Wilton Dedge or for me or for the system,” White said. “I wish we could have a system that could be beyond human error. I think we all wish that. But the problem is the system is populated by humans, and so human error is in fact possible.” In Dedge’s case, human error was rampant, as detailed by Dedge’s pro bono attorney on the compensation issue, Sandy D’Alemberte, who said he hopes Florida can create a better process for evaluating such missteps in criminal prosecutions in order to improve the system. “I don’t know how to explain why it happened, exactly. But it did,” White said. “Frankly, I took the case over from the first prosecutor and it was already formed.. . . All the evidence was there.” The Fifth District Court of Appeal reversed Dedge’s first conviction on December 22, 1983, finding that the trial judge should not have allowed dog scent testimony that lacked reliability. The court noted that evidence of Dedge’s guilt was “minimal.” For the second trial, the dog scent evidence was out. But White used the testimony of Zacke, who was the only inmate on a prison transport van with Dedge and claimed Dedge had confessed. Once a millionaire, Zacke had been convicted of murder, five counts of conspiracy to commit murder, and received 180 years in prison. In agreeing to testify as an informant in several cases, 130 years were wiped off his sentence. White stressed Zacke wasn’t promised anything specifically in Dedge’s case. “You’ve got to remember that Clarence Zacke, for everything you say about him, he wasn’t offered and wasn’t given anything for his testimony,” White said. “How do you turn down that testimony, you know, when a guy says, ‘Look, I’ll come testify for you?’ We don’t have to give him anything for it. How do you say, ‘No, I won’t put that on?’” The most compelling evidence, White said, was the victim’s identification. “There is a lot of talk about her misidentifying the defendant,” White said. “But, frankly, that comes out of a statement she made in the emergency room to a nurse. What she described in her first statement to the police is noticeably different in terms of the height and weight and all that. I don’t place as much credence in that variance, myself.. . . And she had done a drawing. It was the best one I had ever seen. It looked just like him, I swear.” During Dedge’s second trial in 1984, the state relied on testimony of a hair micro-analyst who said foreign hair recovered from the victim’s bed established that Dedge could not be eliminated as the source, but the prosecutor argued the hair was a match. D’Alemberte has claimed that evidence is based on “junk science.” In 1988, while in prison serving two life terms, Dedge began his quest for DNA testing to prove his innocence, eventually getting help from the Innocence Project. It would take another dozen years until June 2000 for a court order for the state to release evidence for DNA testing. The results showed the hairs could not be Dedge’s. But that was still not enough to exonerate Dedge. “At first, it was, ‘We had DNA done on the hairs found in the bed. They don’t match Wilton Dedge. They don’t match the victim either.’ But was it necessarily the perpetrator? Or was it some other person’s who had been in her bedroom? Had they been transferred?” White explained. “They wanted us to throw in the towel because there were hairs that didn’t match the victim or the defendant. And we refused to do that.” It was not until a July 2004 hearing that it was revealed that traces of DNA extract from anal slides, taken during the inconclusive earlier DNA testing, remained at the lab and could possibly be used in the newly developed Y-Chromosome DNA testing. Two days later, the judge ordered expedited testing, which conclusively excluded Dedge as the rapist. The next day, Dedge walked out of the Brevard County Jail a free man. After all these years, White said, he also knows of no way to find the real rapist. “There was never any other suspect we could think of at the time, way back then. To my knowledge, there is just no one,” White said. “If you had some thoughts that maybe these guys could have done it, then you could maybe do a DNA comparison. But I don’t believe we have any such pool of possible suspects.” What can be learned from the Dedge case so mistakes don’t happen again? “I can’t think of any concrete thing we can do to avoid this from possibly happening. The defendant is entitled to counsel. The state has to prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt. He’s entitled to a jury trial. All that is there. I don’t know what else we can do. Are you going to raise the standard of proof beyond all possible doubt? Unless you change the standard, how are you going to affect a change? I don’t know how to do it. I really don’t.” Dedge prosecutor details decision-making process Dedge prosecutor details decision-making processcenter_img February 1, 2006 Regular Newslast_img

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