(This Op-Ed, by yours truly, appears today in Florida Today newspaper.)
Dear Attorney General Pam Bondi:
Gary Bennett is entering his 34th year of a life prison sentence for a crime he did not commit. As diligent as our justice system must be to seek justice against criminals and keep our communities safe, we must be equally as diligent ensuring we do not mistakenly rob an innocent person of his/her right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
But Florida hasn’t done that, particularly prosecutors of the early 1980s in Brevard County
I’m sure you know about the Gary Bennett case. It has been exposed in newspapers for decades, most especially in recent years by FLORIDA TODAY as deftly investigated and recorded by reporter John Torres.
I’ve reviewed the so-called “evidence” in this case and have reached the same conclusion as Torres and others: A horrible crime has been committed and Gary Bennett is the victim.
My view comes with a degree of credibility. I spent the majority of my 30 years with Miami-Dade police as a homicide investigator and later, captain. I investigated, supervised or oversaw over 1,000 murders. Never did I — or did the Dade State Attorney’s Office — use the tactics to gain a court victory as was done habitually in the early 1980s, when wrongful convictions took the prime of lives away from William Dillon (27 years), Wilton Dedge (22 years) and Juan Ramos (four years). Ramos was acquitted in a retrial.
Those tactics included the use of a corrupt “expert witness” dog handler who was eventually exposed as a fraud and banned from courtrooms. Add testimony from jailhouse snitches who ironically gained in-cell confessions by the defendants when they never confessed to anyone else. Those snitches may not have been “promised” leniency in their cases, but they received leniency nevertheless. We both know how jailbirds can be primed to lie under oath if their sentences will likely be reduced. In Dillon’s case, the jailhouse snitch admitted his role in a Tallahassee hearing 27 years later.
In all my Dade County years, I never used a jailhouse snitch who was a stranger to the defendant. In some cases, I gained admissions from — yes — the snitches themselves, who were bargaining for favors. State Attorney Richard Gerstein and later, Janet Reno, were so leery of snitches, they required polygraphs in all such cases.
But not the Brevard prosecutors of 1981–1985. Now, Gary Bennett’s case reeks of the same incompetence and/or corruption while the innocent inmate faces a life of doom.
Yes, there was other evidence in the murder of Helen Nardi, 55, who was stabbed 26 times with four different instruments. Bennett’s partial palm print was lifted from a closet door. Never mind that he had been invited into the victim’s house not long before her death. Several other prints in the house were never identified. Bennett’s print was irrelevant. Two pubic hairs found on her body were excluded as evidence against Bennett; they weren’t his. And never mind that Bennett agreed to a polygraph, which, according to examiner Phil Sellers, showed “no deception.” Never mind that Gary Bennett’s court-appointed lawyer — according to John Torres’ interview with a former law partner — was an alcoholic who should never have been assigned a murder case.
Over a period of three years, William Dillon, Juan Ramos and Wilton Dedge were all innocent men ramrodded into prison by use of the exact same M.O., by manufacturing evidence in order to win a case. It’s an M.O. I never used in 30 years. Gary Bennett suffered the same inhumanity.
All the appeals have been exhausted, but we know how that goes. It’s about fair trial and error-free procedures. It’s not about humanity and innocence.
That’s where you come in, Madam Attorney General. I implore you, FLORIDA TODAY implores you, the people of Florida implore you and Gary Bennett implores you to delve into this travesty of justice and do the right thing: Recommend to the governor that justice can only be served when Gary Bennett is awarded a full pardon.