New panel could help cases like Bennett's

June 1, 2010

DNA evidence will not clear convicted killer Gary Bennett, who remains behind bars as a result of 25-year-old testimony from a since-discredited dog expert.

But lawyers for Bennett still believe they have a "strong case for innocence."

Bennett was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison in 1984 for the murder of his neighbor, Helen Nardi the year before. He has long maintained his innocence. He passed a lie detector test. He could not be tied to the case by a rape kit examination. And several people testified he was elsewhere when Nardi was sexually assaulted and murdered.

The state attorney's office used a familiar strategy in convicting Bennett -- employing testimony from dog handler John Preston in combination with a jailhouse snitch who came forward in return for promises of leniency. Others convicted by the same method, who have since been cleared or their convictions overturned, include Wilton Dedge, Juan Ramos and William Dillon.

DNA evidence led to the release of Dedge and Dillon. Ramos was awarded a new trial based on the Florida Supreme Court's rejection of Preston's testimony. Without that damning testimony, Ramos was found not guilty and released.

Paul Casteleiro, the New Jersey attorney who represents Bennett, is hoping Preston's involvement will yield a similar outcome for his client.

"We are planning within the next month or so to file a motion for post conviction relief attacking the conviction in large part based on the dog scent lineup so-called evidence," he said. "Unfortunately, our attempts to obtain DNA evidence failed. They couldn't find any DNA on the vaginal or oral swabs."

Nardi was 55 when she was stabbed to death. Records indicated she was having regular sexual relations with her 65-year-old son-in-law, Kermit Parkins, who had married Nardi's 16-year-old daughter when he was 53.

Parkins was never considered a suspect in the case despite the unusual relationships. Later, police discovered he used to rent a trailer from the lead investigator in the case, Palm Bay police Detective Leroy Dunning.

Preston, who was exposed as a fraud in 1984, testified that his dog linked Bennett's scent to the weapons used to kill Nardi, despite the fact crime scene investigators preserved the items in strong-smelling chemicals.

During another "scent lineup," Preston's dog urinated on washcloths saturated with blood, including one gathered from the crime scene. That ruined the evidence.

Bennett is one of four Brevard County men still in prison who Preston testified against. The others are:
  •  Frank Berry, sentenced to 124 years in prison in the rape of a Merritt Island woman in 1981.
  •  Gary Dirk, sentenced to life in prison in a burglary and rape in 1985.
  •  Mark Wayne Jones, serving double life sentences in the murders of two Titusville women in 1981.
New Commission

Cateleiro's latest post-conviction efforts on Bennett's behalf come as the Florida Supreme Court has started soliciting applications for an attorney to head the new Innocence Commission -- a panel charged with examining the systemic issues relating to wrongful convictions.

The commission will make recommendations for judicial reform to the Supreme Court.

"We are encouraged that the Florida Supreme Court is working quickly to create and staff the new Innocence Commission," said Seth Miller, executive director of the Innocence Project of Florida, a non-profit group that works to free wrongfully incarcerated prisoners. "(We look) forward to working with the Chief Justice to make the work of the Commission valuable and beneficial to the future of Florida's criminal justice system."

State Sen. Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, helped secure funding for the commission during the latest legislative session. He became involved in the issue as a result of his work on a wrongful incarceration compensation bill for Dillon, which did not make it to the floor this year.

In 2005, Haridopolos successfully sponsored a compensation bill for Wilton Dedge, a Port St. John man who spent more than 20 years in prison for rape before DNA evidence proved his innocence.

"I'm very pleased," Haridopolos said. "This is a great move forward for justice in the state of Florida. It means cases like Wilton Dedge and William Dillon will never happen again."

Next year Haridopolos takes over as president of the Florida Senate.

Innocent Imprisoned
Truth in Justice