Dedge wins on appeal

In the April 29 issue, Orlando Weekly printed a story about Wilton Dedge, a man who has spent 22 years in prison for a rape that DNA testing proves he didn't commit. On April 27, Dedge took a big step toward becoming a free man.

The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in Daytona Beach ruled in Dedge's favor, saying the DNA test that proves his innocence is admissible in court.

Dedge was convicted of raping a 17-year-old girl in the small Brevard County town of Sharpes in 1982. He is serving a sentence of life plus 30 years at Cross City Correctional Institution. Though he got his DNA test results in 2001, the state has since argued the results are inadmissible because he didn't follow proper legal procedure when he requested the test, in 2000. The appellate court ruling sets the stage for Dedge's release from prison.

He is represented by the Innocence Project, co-founded by Barry Scheck. Innocence Project attorney Nina Morrison is requesting a hearing in the 18th Circuit Court in Brevard County. Armed with the DNA test results, Morrison says she plans to ask for a new trial. "We are cautiously optimistic about the outcome for Wilton Dedge."

One possible outcome: Dedge's conviction could be overturned and the judge could order that he be released. The state could also challenge the validity of his DNA tests, though that has never happened before in Florida.

Dedge had no prior criminal record when he was charged with the rape. The victim initially told police her attacker was 6 feet tall and weighed 200 pounds, but six weeks after the rape -- after seeing Dedge once in a convenience store -- she picked him out of a photo lineup. He is 5 feet, 6 inches tall and weighed 125 pounds at the time.

Dedge, 42, has been a model prisoner. In 22 years, he's had only one disciplinary write-up. He passed the GED and earned almost two years of college credits before the legislature barred inmates from taking college classes. He has an operator's license in wastewater treatment and runs the Cross City prison's water-treatment plant.

If he is released after 22 years in prison, he will face some monumental challenges. He'll need to find a job, a car and a place to live in a society he's not going to recognize. Sixteen states offer compensation for the wrongfully convicted, but Florida isn't one of them. Dedge can't sue for damages unless he can show that the state deliberately set out to harm him.

He might get some help through the Innocence Project, however. Last year the project began a program to help wrongly convicted men and women restart their lives. The Life After Exoneration Program taps local resources in the community to help them resettle.

Attorney Nina Morrison says Dedge would like to return to the Brevard County area.