Lawmakers apologize for wrongful incarceration

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first_img Lawmakers apologize for wrongful incarceration Jan Pudlow Senior Editor Finally, Wilton Dedge received from legislators what he has never gotten from prosecutors who twice sent him to prison for a rape he didn’t commit: a face-to-face apology.Add to that $2 million to help him start his life over again after 22 years wrongly incarcerated, free tuition to state universities, a standing ovation from senators, and 44-year-old Dedge’s quest for justice ended December 8 on the last day of the special session.Even though he said no amount of money can fix what happened to him, it was a semblance of overdue justice—for himself, that is.Dedge, a soft-spoken and somber man from Port St. John in Brevard County, has always maintained that true justice will not come until Florida devises a better system to exonerate and compensate other innocent people wrongly incarcerated.Part of that process is removing the current July 1, 2006, deadline for DNA testing, the scientific breakthrough that eventually unlocked the prison cell for Dedge.Dedge got a chance to personally tell that to Jeb Bush when the governor signed the bill into law December 14.“Mainly, I wanted to make sure he stays on top of doing away with the DNA deadline and trying to get some type of funding for the Innocence Initiative,” Dedge said the day after his 10 minutes with the governor, referring to the Tallahassee project run on a shoestring budget by lawyer Jenny Greenberg, who is still trying to sift through about 1,000 cases in the basement of the attorney general’s office building.“Actually, the governor said he’d look into it. He said he’d get back in touch. I also asked him, ‘Why aren’t they pursuing the case, to find out who did it?’ It just seems like a common-sense thing to do,” said Dedge, who was only 20 when he was arrested for the 1981 rape.“Whenever somebody is proved innocent, they shouldn’t have to wait a year or two. It should be almost automatic. They should look at what went wrong. We are supposed to have the best system. Let’s make it better.”Dedge knows all about waiting.Dedge had asked for DNA testing when he first read about it in the newspaper in 1988. It took a decade after the Innocence Project first sought DNA testing and three years after the test actually cleared Dedge as the rapist before he was finally set free in August 2004.Ever since, Sandy D’Alemberte, both former president of the ABA and Florida State University, has taken on the Dedge claims case as a pro bono mission. He likened the experience to being trapped in a “house of mirrors.” Last year, some legislators urged him to take the claims case to court, despite hurdles of sovereign immunity, and so he did, only to be told by Second Circuit Judge William Gary in August that only the legislature could act.So it was back to the legislature.This time around, D’Alemberte said, there was “a real sea change in people’s attitudes.“I think the big thing is people began to understand what it meant for an innocent person to be in prison. I think they came to understand not only the compensation issue, but I am happy to say I think they have also come around very substantially on the DNA-extension issue,” D’Alemberte said.A key person who changed his mind is House Speaker Allan Bense, R-Panama City.As Dedge stood solemnly in the visitors’ gallery, Bense said: “We could have passed this bill last session, and I stopped it. I stopped it because I wasn’t convinced it was the right thing to do. I hope you will accept my apologies.”That apology from a powerful politician, Dedge said, came as a surprise.“It was a very rare thing to publicly admit you were wrong,” Dedge said. “We got to talk afterwards and he seemed very sincere.”Dedge was convicted by what D’Alemberte called junk science microscopic hair analysis, testimony of a notorious jailhouse snitch, a discredited dog handler and his wonder dog that supposedly could track cold scents months and years later, and the 17-year-old victim who described her rapist as 6 feet tall and 180 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.In the end, it was the perseverance of a group of pro bono attorneys working with the Innocence Project—including Milton Hirsch of Miami and J. Cheney Mason in Orlando—that made sure DNA testing on physical evidence finally cleared Dedge’s name.“The people who handled the exoneration are willing to waive their attorneys’ fees, with the hope that the legislature will do something to fund the future screening [DNA testing on innocence claims]. There’s no commitment on the legislature, but at least several people told us they would take a conscientious look at it,” D’Alemberte said.Rep. John Quinones, R-Kissimmee, and Sen. Alex Villalobos, R-Miami, have filed bills to do away with deadlines for DNA testing, even for inmates who were convicted on plea deals.And Sen. Daniel Webster, R-Winter Garden, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, pledged to keep pushing his idea to compensate the taking of a wrongfully incarcerated person’s freedom, much the same as the state compensates the taking of someone’s property in eminent domain.“I hope we can come up with a policy, a lasting policy that would be an opportunity to compensate others who may find themselves in the same position as Wilton Dedge,” Webster said.Those efforts are planned for the upcoming regular session. But during the special session, the focus was on Dedge. Rep. Dudley Goodlette, R-Naples, ushered the bill through the House, (which voted 117-2, with Reps. Donald Brown, R-DeFuniak Springs, and Fred Brummer, R-Apopka, casting the dissenting votes).“I think the leadership, the speaker of the House, and members generally recognize that the justice system failed Wilton Dedge,” Goodlette said. “This is a legislative acknowledgement of that failure. As infrequent as that is, when injustices do occur, I think we have a moral obligation to address this in a forthright manner and to provide some kind of equitable remedy for that injustice.”On the Senate floor, moments before the unanimous 39-0 vote, Sen. Mike Haridopolos, R-Melbourne, the first legislator to support Dedge’s cause, asked senators to remember back in their own lives to 1982, when Dedge was first convicted.“In my case, I was in the sixth grade,” Haridopolos said. “As many of us went to bed at night dreaming about an incredible future, which we are enjoying today, the nightmare began for Mr. Dedge. I can only imagine for 22 years.. . he went to bed thinking, in the morning, that this nightmare would end. It will never end.. . . “I hope today that our actions will send a message that the State of Florida is a compassionate state and that we too make mistakes,” Haridopolos continued.“Hopefully, we can start moving forward so that a case like this may never happen again, with the marvels of DNA evidence. Or if we should be presented a case like this again, we have some direction in which to move.” Lawmakers apologize for wrongful incarceration January 1, 2006 Regular Newslast_img

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