Trial and errors

For 20 years Wilton Dedge has claimed his innocence of a rape for which he was convicted in Brevard County `Unlocking the evidence, June 29,2000`. After pushing for DNA testing that he believed would clear him -- and fighting to preserve evidence so it could eventually be tested -- he finally got his wish when a circuit judge ordered the tests last year.

When Dedge was convicted of the rape in 1982, the jury heard expert testimony about a hair lifted from the victim's bed sheet. The prosecutor said the hair likely came from her rapist.

DNA tests recently revealed that the hair does not belong to Dedge. Still, Brevard County prosecutor Robert Wayne Holmes says Dedge shouldn't get a new trial. "This test doesn't change a thing," says Holmes, who has consistently refused to review Dedge's conviction. "That was only one piece of the evidence that was used to convict him. The other evidence still stands."

Milton Hirsch, a Miami lawyer representing Dedge on behalf of the New York-based Innocence Project, is outraged. "Dedge has been locked up for 20 years and they are saying it doesn't mean anything? A new jury needs to hear this new information." Hirsch is filing a motion for a new trial.

DNA testing was not available at the time of Dedge's first trial. (A second trial in 1985 also found him guilty.) He is serving a life sentence at Cross City Correctional Institution.

Dedge has always maintained his innocence. The then-17-year-old woman who was attacked said a man entered her house, cut off her clothes, raped her and walked out without saying a word. Weeks later, after sheriff's deputies picked up Dedge's older brother and released him, Dedge himself went to authorities. After his conviction, he fought for six years to have the evidence tested. Prosecutors resisted, saying the time limit on appeals had expired. Then, last year, a judge ordered the tests.

The rape kit from which the recent DNA test was drawn consisted of one sperm cell and one hair, and had been stored for nearly two decades in the un-air-conditioned storeroom of the Brevard County Court House. The kit was sent to Reliagene Laboratories in New Orleans for testing. The sperm cell retrieved from the victim was so old and degraded that the test produced no conclusive result. That left the hair.

With the ruling on the hair, there is now no physical evidence at all that ties Dedge to the crime.

The case against Dedge has been characterized by one appellate judge as "minimal." It consisted of the testimony of a jailhouse snitch, contested scent evidence by a police dog and a disputed eyewitness identification. Originally the victim told police her attacker was 6-foot-1-inches tall and weighed 200 pounds. Dedge stands 5-feet-5-inches and weighed 145 at the time.

Dedge's case helped inspire a Florida law that will help prisoners by permitting DNA testing regardless of time constraints. That law goes into effect in October.


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