DNA frees an innocent man; who will pay?
By Martin Dyckman, Columnist, St. Petersburg Times
August 22, 2004
TALLAHASSEE - Mistakes happen, so Wilton Dedge won't be the last innocent man sent to prison. The young Brevard County woman who accused him of savagely raping and slashing her won't be the last victim to identify the wrong guy.
That's why we need appeals courts and independent judges. That's why we need activists like the Innocence Project, whose persistence finally freed Dedge this month after he had spent 22 years - more than half his life - behind Florida bars.
But what happened to Dedge went beyond honest error. It got as bad as anything I have seen Florida do. It calls for every citizen's disgust, anger and determination. Somebody needs to pay, and we're all to blame if we let such things happen again.
Dedge's case was already infamous for prosecutorial arrogance. It took Dedge five years to get the DNA test he wanted. After the DNA proved that it wasn't his pubic hair that the jury had been led to believe he left in the victim's bed, the state fought for three more years to deny him a new trial.
To Robert Wayne Holmes, the chief assistant state attorney, and to his allies in Tallahassee, arcane rules and timetables trumped Dedge's possible innocence. Last spring, an assistant attorney general told the 5th District Court of Appeal that even if she knew Dedge to be innocent, it wouldn't matter.
"That is not the issue," she said.
It was to the court, which ordered a new trial. This time, the state wanted a DNA test, on a badly degraded semen sample that the defense feared might be ambiguous. In fact, it conclusively cleared Dedge. The results, received last Wednesday, made him the 148th person to be exonerated postconviction by DNA.
The DNA evidence that conclusively proved him innocent also made a liar out of the jailhouse snitch who helped prosecutors send him back to prison, with a worse sentence - for life - after he had won a new trial 20 years ago.
The same thug, Clarence Zacke, put Gerald Stano in the electric chair after a jury that had heard nothing but Stano's unsupported confession couldn't agree whether it was true.
Both men were tried in Brevard County, by some of the same prosecutors. In both cases, the state needed stronger evidence for retrials. In both cases, Zacke miraculously turned up to say the defendants had boasted of the crimes.
" "I just raped and cut some old hog,' " he said Dedge told him. The victim was 17. Zacke also said Dedge threatened to kill her if he ever got out. The judge tried to make sure he wouldn't.
Conveniently for the state, Zacke had been alone with both defendants - in Dedge's case, in a prison transport van - so there was nobody else to dispute what he said. In each case, Zacke knew details that he could have learned only from someone who knew a lot about the crimes.
"Were you surprised at this defendant opening up to you and telling you all these things?" asked Dedge's prosecutor.
"No sir," said Zacke, lying through his teeth.
Zacke was sent to prison for 180 years for a litany of thuggery including conspiracy to murder the brother of an assistant state attorney. For turning on other defendants in that case, he got his sentence cut to 60 years. He swore that he had "asked for nothing and I've been offered nothing" to testify against Dedge but admitted he hoped his testimony would help him get parole.
Zacke did not get parole, but with time off for good behavior he is to be released in March 2006 after serving only 25 years, just three more than Dedge. The statute of limitations on his perjury ran out long ago.
"Zacke is no friend of mine," says Norman Wolfinger, Holmes' boss, who became the state attorney after the Stano and Dedge trials.
Wolfinger concedes that Zacke lied about Dedge, but not that there should be an investigation. He says he is "absolutely" satisfied that nobody connected with his office told Zacke what to say.
I do not understand how he can be so confident. Only an independent investigation could lay that suspicion to rest. Gov. Jeb Bush has yet to say whether there will be one.
Such an investigation would be unwelcome in many places. If Zacke lied about Dedge - as we know he did - did he also lie about Stano? If so, did anybody who worked for the state put Zacke up to it?
Wolfinger - who was in the public defender's office when it represented Stano - says he doesn't think Dedge's case has "any implication" for Stano's. He rationalizes that Stano, unlike Dedge, confessed to police, and that the Florida Supreme Court decided to let Stano die despite the transcript of an interview in which Zacke told a freelance writer that he had been "programmed" to lie.
On March 20, 1998, the court turned down Stano's last appeal on the premise that Zacke's unsworn recantation would not persuade a jury to disregard Stano's confessions. Stano was electrocuted three days later, leaving a statement that said "I am innocent. . . . Now I am dead and you do not have the truth."
Stano confessed to stabbing, strangling and shooting 41 women in three states, but there was never a shred of forensic evidence to confirm what he said. Some of the confessions were so transparently false that prosecutors refused to accept them. His last attorney, Mark Olive, contends Stano was a sick man who had been deceived by a shrewd cop and condemned by a perjurer.
"What a wretched system," Olive said. "Gerry was executed because of what prosecutors had Zacke say. We now know for certain that Zacke was a cold-blooded liar. No jury would convict Gerry knowing that Zacke was a cold-blooded liar."
With the proof in hand that Dedge was innocent, Wolfinger couldn't wait even for Dedge's parents to be told before springing him from the Brevard jail. They were at choir practice when their pastor heard Wolfinger on the news, thanking God for DNA.
Dedge, 42, left the jail with his belongings in a plastic bag. Hurricane Charley hit two days later, but his parents' home lost only power for three days and "some banana trees and a limb here or there." When I talked with Dedge, he was still learning how to use a cordless phone and trying to get accustomed to his mother's driving at 70 mph.
The prisons had trained him to operate a water treatment plant. He has job offers in that field and others. He thinks Florida should reimburse what his parents spent for lawyers out of their retirement fund, more than $100,000, before Innocence Project volunteer Milton Hirsch of Miami took his case pro bono. Florida has no mechanism to compensate the wrongfully convicted, so if the Dedges are to get anything, the Legislature will have to agree to it.
Whatever it turns out to be, it won't be enough.
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