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How Florida fought to keep an innocent man in prison
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At 3 a.m. Thursday, Wilton Dedge and his father took a walk. It was warm outside, but the air smelled glorious, and Dedge couldn’t stop staring up at the crystal Florida sky.

“It was just unreal,” he said, “just to go out at night and see the stars.”

Dedge hadn’t taken a walk with his dad in 22 years. Since May 3, 1982, every night had been spent under a prison roof, locked up for a crime he didn’t commit.

He went away at 20 and came out as a middle-aged man, robbed of his youth by a colossal injustice.

Last week, the state of Florida admitted what Dedge has been claiming all along: He is completely innocent of the violent rape for which he was convicted.

His story is one of tragically mistaken identity, made worse by cold prosecutorial obstinacy.

It’s awful enough that he spent more than half his life behind bars for something he didn’t do. More outrageous is the fact that prosecutors have known for more than three years of a DNA test pointing to Dedge’s innocence.

The case was shaky from the start. The 17-year-old victim initially described her attacker as six feet tall, balding and 200 pounds. Dedge weighed 130 pounds dripping wet, stood five-foot-six and had all his hair.

Unaccountably, the victim picked him from a photo shown to her by police. Today she is said to be “devastated” to know that she made a mistake.

At the first trial, six of Dedge’s co-workers at an auto body shop testified that he was working there at the time the rape occurred.

But a technician from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement took the witness stand to say that a pubic hair found in the victim’s bed was “microscopically identical” to Dedge’s.

Brevard prosecutor Robert Wayne Holmes told jurors that the hair “proves that Mr. Dedge was the rapist.” A special crime-scene dog was also said to have detected Dedge’s scent in the victim’s room.

The jury convicted Dedge, though he was later given a new trial after the reputed talents of the crime-sniffing canine were embarrassingly discredited.

At the second trial, prosecutors produced a sleazeball prison informant who claimed that Dedge casually admitted to the rape. In exchange for his testimony, the informant had 120 years lopped off his own sentence.

Dedge was convicted again, and received 30 years to life. He served his time stoically, though he simmered on the inside.

As DNA testing evolved into an accepted forensic technique, Dedge saw hope for exoneration. In 1996, he asked that his DNA be matched against that of the pubic hair found at the rape scene.

Prosecutor Holmes opposed his request, and for eight long years would not yield.

In the meantime, the case caught the attention of attorney Barry Scheck, a DNA defense specialist and one of the founders of the Innocence Project. He, Nina Morrison and Miami defense lawyer Milt Hirsch took up Dedge’s cause pro bono.

The DNA test was finally done in late 2000. The results were sobering and unequivocal: The hair from the rape victim’s bed belonged to someone other than Dedge.

The state said that Dedge’s test should be ignored because it had been conducted a few months before Florida finalized its rules on DNA procedure.

Assistant Attorney General Bonnie Jean Parrish carried that argument to the Fifth District Court of Appeal. The judges seemed incredulous when she said that the issue was not Dedge’s guilt or innocence, but the premature timing of his DNA test.

The panel bluntly rejected that position, so prosecutors launched a startling new tactic. After years of trying to block Dedge’s DNA evidence, they abruptly embraced the science.

They asked a judge for a new test – not on the hair, but on a semen sample taken from the victim.

The sample had degraded during the two decades, but new technical advancements enabled experts to check for a genetic match.

The result was the same as before: The semen, like the pubic hair, belonged to someone other than Wilton Dedge. He could not possibly be the rapist, and prosecutors could no longer duck the truth.

Holmes finally agreed to drop all charges. A judge signed the paper, and at 1 a.m. Thursday Wilton Dedge stepped out of the Brevard County Jail into the summer night and freedom.

The first thing he did was hug his mother and father.

“I’m just trying to soak it all in right now,” he said.

Carl Hiaasen can be reached by e-mail at HeraldEd@aol.com.
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