TALLHASSEE -- Wilton Dedge left prison in September without so much as a bus ticket home after spending 22 years locked up for a crime he didn't commit.
On Wednesday, the Port St. John man appeared in front of a House committee, hoping to convince lawmakers that men and women who are wrongfully convicted deserve compensation for the years they spent behind bars.
Dedge did not speak to the committee, preferring to leave the talking to his attorneys, but he said afterward that he was encouraged that the lawmakers were open to the idea of establishing a system for wrongfully convicted people to seek compensation from the state.
Last year, DNA evidence exonerated him of the rape of a 17-year-old girl that sent him to prison in 1982.
Florida provides no legal avenues for those wrongfully convicted to sue the state or the prosecutors and police who helped put them in prison.
House Claims Committee Chairman Rep. John Quinones, said he would work to come up with a system for wrongly convicted men and women to apply for compensation from the state Legislature. Quinones, however, made no promises about when a separate measure specifically seeking compensation for Dedge and his parents would be heard this year.
Dedge, 43, is asking for $4.9 million, in part to repay his parents for the money they spent on his rape trial.
"Try to put together a process that's fast and will lead to a result," urged former Florida State University President Sandy D'Alemberte, who is representing Dedge. "Don't leave these people bouncing between the courts and the Legislature."
Jenny Greenberg, director of the Florida Innocence Initiative, said Florida needs to provide monetary compensation, as well as mental and general health care, for those who are proven innocent while serving a sentence.
Leon County State Attorney Willie Meggs said there are very few people who would be eligible for such compensation and cautioned the committee against allowing those who pleaded guilty to go after money from the state. He also said that in order to be eligible for compensation, a person must offer convincing evidence of their innocence after the conviction. "There is no prosecutor that I know of who wants to see an innocent person convicted of any crime," Meggs said.
After the hearing, Dedge, who is now working part time and taking a class to get certified in wastewater management, said he would continue to talk to lawmakers about his personal plea for compensation as well as the creation of a new system for others who might end up in his situation.
He accepted an apology from Rep. Phillip Brutus, R-North Miami, for the years he spent in jail as an innocent man.
"It's the least I can do," Brutus said. "I apologized to him because I think somebody in the government should."
TALLAHASSEE, FL - Prompted by the case of a man who spent 22 years in prison for a rape he didn't commit, the state Senate will study how to compensate people wrongly convicted and imprisoned.
Wilton Dedge, 43, wants lawmakers to give him $5M for the nearly 8,000 days he spent in custody, for his lost wages, the money his family spent to defend and visit him and the work done by the lawyers who fought for his exoneration.
Six months after being cleared by DNA results, Dedge is facing a hard battle in his fight for restitution.
Senate President Tom Lee said Wednesday that the existing process for deciding whether to compensate for wrongs caused by the state doesn't work for cases like Dedge's.
It's a sad situation and lawmakers have a lot of empathy, Lee said.
"The people that are involved in this very tragic situation have undergone a lot, have lost a lot of life and it's a very precious thing to lose," he said.
But, he added, there could be more DNA exonerations and laws must "deal with everyone equally and similarly," Lee said.
Traditionally, claims bills in the Legislature are based on awards that victims win in lawsuits. The cases have to go to the Legislature because the state's sovereign immunity statute shields it from liability above $100,000 per person and $200,000 per incident.
Dedge's attorneys have not filed a lawsuit in his case. The preliminary pricetag Dedge has put on his claim for compensation includes $1.6 million for his loss of freedom, $1.7 million for lost wages and money for the expenses incurred by his family for his defense and for the attorneys who fought for his exoneration and freedom.
Talbot "Sandy" D'Alemberte, a former president of Florida State University and the American Bar Association, is representing Dedge. He called Lee's decision a good thing.
"It seems to me he's responding to a problem, larger even than Wilton Dedge. I think that shows the right concern," D'Alemberte said.
But Dedge would continue to seek a hearing in the Legislature for his case, D'Alemberte said.
"An innocent citizen, in essence, has been forced to work for the state for 22 years," he said.
In the House, state Rep. David Simmons has filed a claims bill for Dedge but the Longwood Republican said Wednesday he supports only "modest" restitution - something far less than $1 million, much less $5 million.
"We're not in the business of providing a lottery to someone who's been wrongly convicted," Simmons said.
Simmons also said he didn't know if lawmakers would be able to reach a conclusion on Dedge's case this year or if it would take longer.
Dedge, who lives in Cocoa, works part-time in home improvement and landscaping. He was released last summer after serving 22 years in prison for the December 1981 rape of a 17-year-old girl in Brevard County.
Despite testimony of six people who swore he was at a garage nearly 45 minutes away, Dedge was convicted, based on an identification by the victim, microscopic hair analysis and "scent" identification by a dog that has since been discredited.
A year and a half later, an appeals court overturned the conviction. But Dedge was prosecuted, convicted and sentenced again. And the sentence was even harsher - life rather than 30 years.
In June 2001, the first DNA lab test came back in Dedge's case: DNA showed the hair at the crime scene couldn't be his. But it wasn't until a second DNA test in August 2004 on crime-scene semen that prosecutors stopped fighting defense attorneys and Dedge walked free.
Wilton Dedge's 22-year fight to get out of prison for a rape that DNA testing indicates he didn't commit may be coming to a close soon, but not because the physical evidence in the case proves he is innocent.
On July 21, Dedge's attorneys asked 18th Circuit Court Judge Preston Silvernail for a new trial, based on DNA tests that exclude him as the rapist of a then 17-year-old girl in the Brevard town of Sharpes. Silvernail is still considering the request, and will likely make a decision before the end of August.
But if Silvernail orders a new trial, the prosecution may have a hard time convincing the victim, now 39, to participate. Contacted for this story after the July 21 hearing, state prosecutor Chris White said the woman is "no longer sure she wants to go forward."
Dedge, now 42, was convicted of the rape in 1982 and given a life plus 30 years sentence. The victim told police her assailant cut off her clothes, made 65 superficial cuts on her body and raped her twice. She identified Dedge weeks after the attack when she saw him and his brother in a convenience store. At the time of the attack, she told police the rapist was 6 feet tall and weighed 200 pounds. Dedge is 5 feet 6 inches tall, and weighed 125 pounds 22 years ago. He had no prior arrests.
In 1994, Dedge contacted the Innocence Project for help. "I just saw Barry Scheck on TV," he wrote. "Can you help me?"
The Innocence Project - a legal team that specializes in exonerating prisoners through DNA testing - was co-founded by Barry Scheck in 1992. To date the organization has been involved in the release of 143 wrongfully convicted inmates across the country.
They took Dedge's case, and in 2000, he became the first inmate in Florida to have DNA testing on evidence used to convict; in Dedge's case, a semen sample. The test proved inconclusive because the semen sample was old and degraded. But a DNA test on two pubic hairs found on the victim's bed sheets did yield results: The hairs did not belong to Dedge. The same hairs had been used to convict Dedge. Prior to DNA testing, an FDLE analyst stated that the hairs were consistent with Dedge's in all their characteristics.
State prosecutors fought to keep the DNA tests of the hairs out of court, but in May the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the evidence was admissible. Dedge returned to the 18th Circuit Court July 21 asking for a new trial. At his first trial, Dedge relied on an attorney who had never tried a criminal case. This time around he's represented, pro bono, by Innocence Project attorneys.
Still, the surprises keep coming in Dedge's case. Defense witness Dr. Sudhir Sinha, president of ReliaGene Technologies in New Orleans, told prosecutor Robert Wayne Holmes about a new type of DNA test developed within the last two years, Y-STR, that could possibly extract results from the degraded semen sample. Even though Sinha testified that the test results would likely be inconclusive, prosecutors asked the judge to order the test. Silvernail did just that.
Meanwhile, the victim says she isn't certain she could go through with another trial. White won't say if she is hesitating because she now doubts her identification of Dedge, or because she simply doesn't want to repeat history. "[I] said everything [I] can think of to persuade her not to back down," the prosecutor said in a phone interview after the July 21 hearing.
Dedge's Y-DNA test results are due back later this month. When he gets the test results, Judge Silvernail has two choices: He can order a new trial, or overturn Dedge's conviction.
Not far from the courtroom where the July hearing took place, the victim who identified Dedge more than two decades ago watched the proceedings on closed-circuit television. Now 39, her hair is sprinkled with gray. She has a teenage daughter of her own. This was her first look at Wilton Dedge since she pointed at him from the witness stand and said with absolute certainty that he was the man who raped her.
Nina Morrison, Dedge's Innocence Project attorney, says she is not surprised that the victim may not want to go through with another trial. "I'd be shocked if she didn't have some doubts whether she made a bad ID," says Morrison. "She's been told all this time that the hairs belonged to Wilton.
HARPES, FL Aug. 26 - After seeing more than 130 prisoners freed by DNA testing in the last 15 years, prosecutors in Florida and across the country have mounted a vigorous challenge to similar new cases.
Prosecutors acknowledge that DNA testing is reliable, but they have grown increasingly skeptical of its power to prove innocence in cases where there was other evidence of guilt. Defense lawyers say these prosecutors, who often relied on the same biological evidence to convict the defendants before DNA testing was available, are more committed to winning than to justice.
The fight has become particularly heated in Florida, where prisoners will soon be barred from seeking DNA testing for old cases under a 2001 law that set an Oct. 1 deadline for such requests.
In this state, the cases of two prisoners illustrate both the power and limits of DNA testing.
In one case, Wilton Dedge was convicted of rape based in part on two light-brown hairs found in the victim's sheets here in 1981. It was the only physical evidence against him. The hairs were, the prosecutor said at his trial, "microscopically identical" to those of Mr. Dedge.
In a 1983 trial of another man, Richard McKinley, for the rape of an 11-year-old girl in Homestead, the prosecutors told the jury that semen recovered from the girl matched his blood type.
DNA testing, which was not available at the time of either trial and which was performed recently only after fierce resistance from two sets of Florida prosecutors, showed that the hairs and the semen could not have come from the defendants.
Yet both men remain in prison serving life terms, and the prosecutors who relied on the biological evidence to convict them now say the DNA testing is not proof of their innocence.
Other Florida prisoners may never have the chance to argue about whether DNA evidence exonerates them. In 2001, the state Legislature opened a two-year window for DNA retesting in older cases. The window will close on Oct. 1, after which courts cannot hear the cases of hundreds of inmates who say that testing could free them, and lawyers across the state are in a race against time to file motions on behalf of such clients.
While prosecutors concede that DNA can prove whether someone is associated with a given piece of biological evidence, they insist that is not the same thing as proving whether a defendant committed a crime.
In the cases of Mr. Dedge and Mr. McKinley, for example, the prosecutors say that the remaining evidence in those cases was strong enough to uphold the men's convictions.
Defense lawyers say these arguments amount to prosecutorial vindictiveness. Prosecutors respond that it is time to reconsider the power of DNA evidence, saying its usefulness in many cases is overstated.
The debate about the value of DNA evidence also rages in other states.
In Houston, prosecutors have resisted an appeal for an unconditional pardon by Josiah Sutton, who was cleared by DNA testing in a 1998 rape and has been freed. The victim continues to maintain that she identified the right man.
"If this is not categorically dispositive evidence of innocence," said David Dow, a lawyer for Mr. Sutton, referring to the results of the DNA testing of sperm collected from the victim, "there is no such thing."
Chuck Rosenthal, the district attorney in Houston, saw things differently. "From the standpoint of the law, he's innocent until proven guilty," he said.
"Whether he's actually innocent, I don't know," he said. "I'm not about to call the victim in this case a liar."
Mr. Dow said this exchange illustrates a trend. "What we're seeing is a double standard," he said. "Evidence will be considered more than sufficient by prosecutors if it establishes guilt and questionable or insufficient if it established innocence."
Barry Scheck, the co-founder of the Innocence Project at Cardozo Law School in New York, said prosecutors in New York, Illinois and many Texas counties have embraced DNA testing. But in Alabama, Arkansas, Colorado, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi and New Mexico, Mr. Scheck said, prosecutors often resisted testing requests on the ground that even a positive result would not conclusively establish innocence.
On Monday, for instance, Lonnie Erby was released in St. Louis after 17 years in prison for rape. The prosecutor there, Jennifer Joyce, had opposed efforts to perform DNA testing, calling it pointless because tests could not conclusively clear Mr. Erby, since biological evidence was available in only two of three rapes with which he was charged. She changed her mind after testing excluded him as a suspect in those rapes.
In Florida, Mr. Dedge had to sue to have the evidence in his case retested, over the objections of prosecutors who said that the state's interest in finality and the victim's feelings should preclude it.
Judge Winifred J. Sharp dissented in a 1998 appeal ruling that initially turned down his request. "The results of the tests, if successfully performed, will likely be absolutely conclusive of either guilt or innocence," she wrote.
The tests were performed in 2000. Though the victim said that only she, her sister and the rapist could have left the hairs in her sheets, the tests excluded the sisters and Mr. Dedge.
But prosecutors say that Mr. Dedge has not proved his innocence or his entitlement to a new trial. They rely on three other pieces of evidence against him.
The victim, who was 17 at the time, identified him. But she first said that her assailant was 6 feet tall, weighed 200 pounds and had a hairline receding to the point of baldness. Mr. Dedge is more than six inches shorter than that and weighs about 145 pounds; at the time of the crime, according to court records, he was about 125 pounds. He still sports a full head of hair.
A prison informant testified that Mr. Dedge had confessed to him in a passing conversation. The informant received a 120-year reduction in his sentence in exchange for his testimony. A truck confiscated by the state was also released to the informant's wife as part of the same deal.
And an expert witness was allowed to testify that his dog had compared the victim's sheets three months after the rape to a selection of sheets from the local jail and had picked out Mr. Dedge's sheets. Such "scent line-ups" have since been questioned by the Florida courts.
In June, a trial judge, J. Preston Silvernail of Brevard Circuit Court in Viera, ruled that Mr. Dedge could pursue his motion for exoneration.
"There is," he wrote, "a reasonable probability that the defendant would have been acquitted if the DNA evidence excluding the defendant as the contributor of the pubic hair had been introduced at trial." Prosecutors appealed that decision.
Robert Wayne Holmes, the prosecutor in the case, did not return repeated calls for comment. In court papers, he emphasized the justice system's interest in finality, the hardship that a retrial would inflict on the victim and the strength of the remaining evidence. "The fact that it can now be said that the defendant was not the source of the hair has little significance," he wrote.
Mr. Dedge, a steely man who wore a bright-red prison jump suit, handcuffs and leg shackles during an interview at the detention center in Cocoa, Fla., disputed that.
"They used it against me," he said of the hair evidence, "and now they say it doesn't matter."
Mr. Dedge, now 41, presented six witnesses at his trial who said he was working as an auto mechanic and was on the job at the time of the rape.
In the McKinley case, prosecutors concede that DNA testing of the sperm found in a rape of an 11-year-old girl shows that it could not have come from the defendant. The prosecutors now say that doesn't matter. "The DNA is a sideshow," said Edward Griffith, a spokesman for the Miami-Dade state attorney's office.
More important than the DNA, Mr. Griffith said, was a police officer's testimony that he saw Mr. McKinley atop the girl with his pants down.
The DNA evidence does not contradict that testimony, he added, because the girl had had sex with another man not long before the rape. She also said that Mr. McKinley had not ejaculated.
Testimony about the girl's earlier sexual encounter was excluded under a Florida law that bars introduction of a victim's sexual history in a rape trial. "That's insane," said Mr. Scheck, who represents Mr. McKinley in his current request. "Whoever had sex with an 11-year-old committed a crime."
He said that Mr. McKinley deserved at least a retrial. "There is no question that the prosecution took the position at trial that the semen came from McKinley," he said.
Other prisoners in Florida may never be able to seek DNA testing because of the Oct. 1 deadline. Almost 500 inmates have contacted lawyers and groups that represent potentially innocent people asking for help in reviewing transcripts, finding evidence and making motions. Teams of volunteer lawyers and law students are working furiously to beat the deadline.
They have been able to review about 280 cases, said Jennifer Greenberg, the director of the Florida Innocence Initiative, and have concluded that about 20 have viable DNA-based innocence claims. Each will now require quick and intensive litigation to file motions before the deadline.
Many other files remain unexamined, and letters keep arriving. "We have 202 people for whom we've done nothing," Ms. Greenberg said. "We've been inundated."
Defense lawyers plan to ask the Florida Supreme Court to extend the deadline, and they hold out hope that federal courts would allow retesting even after the deadline passes.
But these lawyers say they are concerned with one aspect of the testing law: Except in death penalty cases, in which biological evidence must be saved until 60 days after execution, the law allows the destruction of DNA evidence.
Mr. Dedge said that his experience shows the deadline should be extended. "There's no statute of limitations on murder one," he said. "How can there be a statute of limitations on proving your innocence?"