Compensating the wrongfully convicted explored

first_img March 15, 2005 Senior Editor Regular News Compensating the wrongfully convicted explored Compensating the wrongfully convicted explored Dedge case has lawmakers examining how to make it right when system breaks down Jan Pudlow Senior Editor “It was like I was dropped on another planet when I got out,” Wilton Dedge said of finally being a free man, cleared by DNA testing, after serving 22 years in prison for a brutal rape he did not commit.“Everything has changed so much.. . . It’s like I’m 20 years old in a 43-year-old body,” Dedge said at a February press conference in Tallahassee, standing with his parents and lawyer Sandy D’Alemberte.Now the question is whether and how the state of Florida will reimburse Dedge for more than two decades snatched from the prime of his life—and whether legislators will create a process to compensate others wrongfully convicted.Early indications look promising.D’Alemberte said he has support from Rep. David Simmons, R-Longwood, and Sen. Mike Haridopolos, R-Melbourne, for his claims bill.Addressing the bigger picture of a mechanism to compensate not only Dedge but others wrongfully convicted, Senate President Tom Lee announced his decision recently to direct the Senate Judiciary Committee, chaired by Sen. Daniel Webster, R-Winter Garden, to make recommendations that could include possible legislation.On March 2, Webster filed SB 1964, a shell bill that simply states the legislature’s intention “to enact legislation to provide for the compensation of individuals who were wrongly imprisoned and whose innocence is established.”“If we do something, I would like it to be a broad statewide policy,” Webster said of the proposed alternative to a claims bill. Likening the process to a condemnation of property in an eminent domain case, Webster said: “What they have done is taken a part of a person’s life and you have to pay for that. They took a life, and time and earnings.” Webster added: “I don’t think there would be a lot of resistence to compensating for pain and suffering.”In a prepared statement, Lee said: “With the emerging technology and the advances in DNA testing, we may see more cases like that of Wilton Dedge. We have an excellent criminal justice system in Florida, but there are those limited cases when the system breaks down.“Currently, the only avenue for compensation in Florida law is the claims bill process—yet it appears that our present system may not sufficiently address those few cases when someone has been imprisoned for a crime they clearly did not commit.”The Dedge case is a painfully slow chronology to eventual exoneration—a decade after the Innocence Project first sought DNA testing and three years after the DNA testing actually cleared Dedge as the rapist. After two trials, Dedge was convicted for the 1981 rape, based on what D’Alemberte calls junk science of 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, 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 time of the crime.In the end, it was the perseverance of a group of pro bono lawyers 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.“I’ve had people ask me: ‘What’s a number? What will make it right?’ I haven’t been able to come up with one, and I haven’t really talked to anyone who could put a number on it,” Dedge said. “Things I’ve missed; I’ve lost family, friends. I can’t put a price on it.”Putting a price on it is what D’Alemberte, former president of Florida State University and the ABA, is trying to do as he works pro bono to get a hearing at the legislature on a claims bill for Dedge. Pressed to come up with a number that would compensate Dedge and his parents, who took out a second mortgage on their house and emptied a pension fund to pay for their son’s legal defense, D’Alemberte said: “$4.8 million.”Armed with a report from expert economists on Dedge’s lost wages, D’Alemberte said, “The expert economists can’t tell us anything at all about how to value the loss of freedom. Somebody else is going to have to figure that out. I hope it means a lot to all of society. It certainly meant a lot to Wilton.”What also means a lot to Dedge is not leaving behind others who remain locked in prison but insist they are innocent.“I’m doing it for myself, but I’m also doing it for friends who are still in prison,” Dedge said. “I know people in there who have been trying to get DNA testing done for years, and they are still being denied. Hopefully, (legislators) will do something for the Innocence Project, also, because they spent hundreds of thousands of dollars and I don’t know how many thousands of man hours trying to get this done. Just going by the statistics, there are still thousands of people in prison who shouldn’t be there.”D’Alemberte seized upon a quote from President Bush’s State of the Union Address: “Because one of the main sources of our national unity is our belief in equal justice, we need to make sure Americans of all races and backgrounds have confidence in the system that provides justice. In America we must make doubly sure no person is held to account for a crime he or she did not commit—so we are dramatically expanding the use of DNA evidence to prevent wrongful conviction.”D’Alemberte tied that quote to his client’s hope that his case will spark the creation of a fair system to exonerate others, including support for the Innocence Project and the offshoot Florida Innocence Initiative at Florida State University College of Law, housed at D’Alemberte’s office, that struggles financially.“Maybe I am reading too finely between the lines of President Bush’s remarks, but it seems to me that he is calling for something very much like that. He is not directly asking for support for the Florida Innocence Initiative; he at least is indicating his belief for having a system in place that will take care of that,” D’Alemberte said.“And Wilton has made that point to me repeatedly that as a result of this, hopefully, we are opening doors for people who have bonafide claims of innocence.”last_img

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