Twenty-two years ago, Wilton Dedge was convicted of raping a 17-year-old girl at knifepoint in the small Brevard County town of Sharpes. He's serving a life plus 30 years sentence at Cross City Correctional Institution. At 42, he has spent more than half his life in prison.
But in 2001, a DNA test excluded him as the rapist. Nonetheless, Dedge remains in prison.
For the past three years, the state has fought Dedge's attempts to have his DNA test results admitted in court. The state makes a very literal argument -- that Dedge failed to follow proper legal procedure when he asked for the test, and therefore the results are inadmissible.
On April 13, Dedge's battle to get out of prison continued in Daytona Beach in front of a three-judge panel of the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. As the 45-minute session drew to a close, presiding Judge Emerson R. Thompson had a question for the state, which he directed at assistant attorney general Bonnie Jean Parrish.
"Let me ask you a hypothetical question," Thompson said. "If you knew with 100 percent certainty that this man was absolutely innocent, would that change your position in this case?"
"No," Parrish replied. "That is not the issue."
The DNA evidence states unequivocally that Dedge, now 42, cannot be the rapist. The state isn't arguing his innocence, and they aren't arguing the validity of the test itself. They think he went about proving his innocence the wrong way, and therefore doesn't deserve a new trial.
Dedge was among the first inmates in Florida to ask for DNA testing. While his test was being done, the Florida Legislature, anticipating more such requests, passed a law spelling out exactly how an inmate should ask for the test, and if proven innocent, how to seek post-conviction relief. Dedge had followed the procedure prescribed by law at the time he made his request, but the Legislature changed the law before he could get his results. He is the only inmate in Florida caught in this trap.
At least he's got some legal muscle on his side: Dedge is represented by the Innocence Project, the group co-founded in 1992 by attorney Barry Scheck, who became famous as O.J. Simpson's lawyer. To date the Innocence Project has been involved with the release of 143 wrongfully convicted inmates nationwide.
Since 2001, Dedge's attorneys have made two trips through circuit and appellate court in search of a ruling. Though he has been denied both times at the circuit level, the Fifth District Court of Appeals finally agreed to determine whether or not his DNA test results are admissible. The court has yet to rule, but if they decide in Dedge's favor, he'll likely end up back before a circuit court judge for a third time.
"It's hard to say what's most outrageous about this case," says Dedge's attorney Milton Hirsch, "the fact that the state's lawyers have spent three years asserting baseless legal technicalities to keep someone in prison after receiving DNA results that prove his innocence, or the fact that they can do so with a straight face, even when they no longer argue that he is actually guilty of this crime."
Scene of the crime
The case against Dedge has been shaky from the start.
The 17-year-old victim told police a man broke into the mobile home where she lived with her father in Sharpes. With a knife, the assailant made superficial cuts on her body, then cut off her shorts and tank top and raped her. He never said a word.
When he left, she called her boyfriend and went to the hospital. Her father was not home at the time.
The victim told police her attacker was 6 feet tall and weighed 200 pounds. Dedge is 5 feet, 6 inches tall and weighed 125 pounds 22 years ago.
Two weeks after the rape, she saw Dedge and his brother at a local convenience store and told her sister that he looked like her attacker. When she saw him again a few weeks later, she called the police, who first arrested Dedge's brother by mistake.
At trial, a Cocoa police sergeant testified that even before he brought photographs of possible suspects to the victim's house for her to look at, he had already "made up his mind to charge Wilton Dedge with the rape." She identified Dedge based on a photograph, not a police lineup. Aside from that brief encounter at the convenience store, she'd never seen him in person until she took the stand in court.
Research indicates that the most frequent cause of wrongful convictions is misidentification. A recent University of Michigan study attributed 90 percent of bad rape convictions to misidentifications. The Innocence Project itself is more conservative; they say eyewitness errors are a factor in 66 percent of false convictions.
Researchers say victims may be too frightened to remember details accurately, and that if a weapon is present, victims may focus more on the weapon than the attacker. After the crime, studies suggest, the victim desperately wants to find the attacker and may pick someone quickly.
At Dedge's original trial in 1981, the jury heard a lot about the hair that detectives found on the victim's bedsheets. Even though it would be 1987 before DNA evidence would be introduced in Florida courtrooms, an FDLE analyst maintained with certainty that the hair was consistent with Dedge's "in all its characteristics." Assistant prosecuting attorney Robert Holmes compared one of Dedge's hairs to the hair found on the sheet and told jurors, "The hairs are alike in every respect. ... This proves that Mr. Dedge is the rapist."
Dedge had no prior criminal record. He was working as an auto mechanic in Daytona Beach and testified he was at the shop at the time of the rape. Six co-workers corroborated his alibi.
"Mr. Dedge has been in prison for 22 years," Innocence Project attorney Nina Morrison told the three-judge appellate court panel April 13. "All he wants is to have his day in court and the right to go home and be with his family."