(This Op-Ed by yours truly, was published by Florida Today, on-line, 20 Oct 2017: “Non-Vetted Jailhouse Snitches Make For Flawed Justice”)
Those spending prison time based on the testimony of a non-vetted jailhouse snitches who offered a story to gain personal favor from prosecutors, should have their cases seriously reviewed by the governor, or at the least, a district court of appeals, or perhaps the state Supreme Court.
Sadly, Brevard County had a number of those cases of non-vetted testimony from in-custody snitches in which the prosecutor’s office of the early 1980s used to help expedite convictions.
Bill Dillon spent 27 years in prison, based partly on the testimony of a jailbird who falsely claimed Dillon had confessed to him in the cell. That snitch openly admitted to his lie 27 years later. Another innocent man, Wilton Dedge spent 22 years in prison for rape, based partly on the self-serving testimony of another inmate. These cases were featured in FLORIDA TODAY’s award-winning podcast series Murder on the Space Coast.
In both cases, prosecutors also gave undue weight to a dog’s sniffer. The infamous handler, John Preston, had later been shamefully outcast from the justice system as a fraud, based on numerous cases. Juan Ramos, a Cuban refugee, spent his five years on death row starting in 1982 based on the same dog’s invalid reaction. Ramos won a retrial five years later and was found not guilty.
I’m familiar with another jailhouse snitch debacle that ensued in Miami-Dade in 1979. I had recently been assigned as captain of the homicide bureau only to learn that the FBI had been conducting a covert corruption investigation of some detectives. I was interviewed often on television, answering questions from the press. The atmosphere was tense.
During this time, an inmate at the county jail named Richard Milbourn, had contacted the State Attorney’s Office saying he had important information to relate. Milbourn later told prosecutors that he had been watching the news on TV in jail when he recognized a prominent police official as the same person he overheard talking to someone in a bar three months earlier. The topic: murder contract. The intended victim was supposedly a local drug kingpin. In fact, that kingpin was later found shot to death in his home.
The prosecutor’s office in Miami would not validate such damning testimony from someone in quest of favors without first ensuring it was true. The snitch submitted to a polygraph by an independent examiner. He flunked. Not only that, he admitted to contriving the story to help his own case.
I was that police officer. Had I been a captain in Brevard County in that era, I may have spent the rest of my life behind bars.
Sure, I know polygraphs are not admissible as hard evidence. Nevertheless, they still have great value as an interview tool. It certainly did in this case.
Prosecutors and cops made no effort to polygraph the snitches that sent Dillon and Dedge to prison. They accepted their word at face value. Nor did they polygraph the two snitches, one of whom is now dead, who helped send Gary Bennett to prison for a murder in 1983. And yes, those prosecutors and cops used the same corrupt dog handler, Preston, to manufacture evidence as was done in the Dillon and Dedge cases.
Anyone see a pattern here?
Prison inmate Gary Bennett, who had passed a polygraph, is now in his 34th year of a life sentence, still vehemently proclaiming his innocence.
Dillon and Dedge received financial compensations for their wrongful convictions, and if Bennett is ever exonerated, he’ll likely get the same. But no amount of money can atone for the horrifying, lifelong damage that was imposed upon innocent human beings.
The bane of corruption cannot be attached to the men who suffered here, it belongs with the bastions of justice whose job it was to seek truth, no matter the cost, no matter the embarrassment. But that didn’t happen. Instead, all that mattered was winning.
Still, no one has been held accountable.