CASE CLOSED? 


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.


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