THE PROBLEM WITH JAILHOUSE SNITCHES. Op-Ed M. Frank

(This article by yours truly appears as an Op-Ed in Florida Today)

 

Jailhouse “snitches” play a wicked role within the bowels of criminal justice. Too many innocent people have spent years — no, decades — locked up (or executed) for crimes they did not commit based on testimony from desperate criminals lying to assist prosecutors in gaining convictions. Whether explicitly promised favors or not, most “snitches” are compensated for their lies in the form of reductions in jail time.

One of the most diabolical examples in Brevard County was the case of 21-year-old William Dillon, arrested for murder in 1981 based on testimony by a dog handler. While in a cell, he supposedly confessed the bludgeoning murder to a stranger, who in turn, blathered the fake conversation to happy prosecutors. Twenty-seven years later, that snitch appeared in front of a legislative committee confessing that he had lied in exchange for leniency. At 48, Dillon walked out of prison, a free man never to retrieve those precious years.

The dog handler, John Preston, was eventually exposed as a fraud, based on several criminal cases where the evidence revealed otherwise. Dillon’s case was featured on FLORIDA TODAY’s podcast Murder on the Space Coast.

Not all prosecutors blindly accept testimony from snitches. In December 1980, during the Miami investigation of the beating death of a black motorcyclist by a group of cops, I received television attention by media because I headed the investigation. Some fellow confined to jail had spotted me on television and sent a note to then-State Attorney Janet Reno.  He wrote that he recognized me on television as being a crooked cop taking bribes within organized crime circles. He was fishing for favors.

Reno’s office smelled a rat and promptly had the fellow polygraphed where he coughed up the truth. The bribes never happened. The Brevard County prosecutor’s office never polygraphed the rat in Dillon’s case. The testimony was too juicy.

Dillon wasn’t the only victim of shady prosecutors and cops. Sadly, others have spent many years in prison based on false testimony about their jailhouse confessions, later released by court orders.

To this day, Gary Bennett, now 61, is in his 35th year rotting in Florida’s state prison, based mainly on two unverified snitches whose testimony was never challenged by polygraph. Bennett voluntarily took and passed a polygraph in 1983, but that didn’t matter.

Helen Nardi, then 55, had been stabbed 25 times in her Palm Bay trailer in 1983. It had to be a very personal motive. Sure enough, John Preston and the fake dog were there to accuse the diminutive Gary Bennett, then 26, who had no real motive. If ever there was a wrongful conviction where the inmate should at the least,be given a new trial, it is this one. The shadows of doubt are simply overwhelming. Meanwhile, the clock ticks.

Forget about the dog and the snitches, neither of which is credible, the only other item of hard evidence was a palm print developed on the lower hallway closet door leading to the bedroom. A park resident as well, Bennett openly admitted that he had visited the victim’s house before, with others, and that he sat on the floor next to the door jamb. The print doesn’t prove a murder, it only proves his prior presence in the house.

What did the court-appointed defense attorney do? He never called a witness or presented a defense to the jury. Poor Gary.

The irony is the modus operandi of the prosecutor, who, in the early 1980s, happened to be the same prosecutor in Dillon’s, Dedge’s and, yes, Bennett’s case. Erroneous dog handler and dubious jailhouse snitches all played a role in the convictions, not to mention a do-nothing defense lawyer.

Future judge Dean Moxley was the prosecutor in these cases. 

There is much more to the story, far too many words allowed for this article. I was a Miami-Dade homicide investigator for 16 of my 30 years on the job. Never did I witness such a travesty by the legal side. What is even more appalling is the state turning a blind eye to the obvious.

Imagine spending one week or a year in prison. Imagine spending 35 years of your life in prison because of the very system that is supposed to protect you.

Marshall Frank is a retired police captain from Miami-Dade County, author and frequent contributor. Visit marshallfrank.com.

8 Responses to THE PROBLEM WITH JAILHOUSE SNITCHES. Op-Ed M. Frank

  1. Anonymous November 17, 2019 at 7:06 am #

    I do want to mention that the polygraph is seen by modern medical as science as pseudoscience. Its results are correct only a terrifyingly low percent of the times it is used. With that being said, how should we verify testimony? How many people does it take to confirm someone is guilty, and with what kind of information?

    • Frank Clifford, Esq. (Ret) November 17, 2019 at 10:57 am #

      Dear Anon Y. Mous:

      Don’t know where you learned that the “results are correct only a terrifying low percent of the times.” On the contrary, there is a high degree of confidence in results. Instead of shooting from the hip, you should consider at least a cursory research of the topic.

      According to research noted by the American Polygraph Association (APA) website on polygraph validity:

      “The data show that techniques intended for event-specific (single issue) diagnostic testing produced an aggregated decision accuracy of 89% (confidence interval of 83% – 95%), with an estimated inconclusive rate of 11%. Polygraph techniques in which multiple issues were encompassed by the relevant questions produced an aggregated decision accuracy of 85% (confidence interval 77% – 93%) with an inconclusive rate of 13%. The combination of all validated PDD techniques, excluding outlier results, produced a decision accuracy of 87% (confidence interval 80% – 94%) with an inconclusive rate of 13%. These findings were consistent with those of the National Research Council’s (2003) conclusions regarding polygraph accuracy, and provide additional support for the validity of polygraph testing when conducted in accordance with APA Standards of Practice.”

  2. Richard November 17, 2019 at 7:54 am #

    well noted Marshall;   I can certainly agree with you to be very cautious in utilizing what you hear as truthful.  Both the Police and Prosecutors sometimes put the concept of cases cleared or won statistics ahead of moral certainty.

  3. Jerry November 17, 2019 at 8:06 am #

    Good article Marshall. What were the homicide detectives and their supervisors doing during these investigations?

  4. Charlie November 17, 2019 at 4:10 pm #

    Very informative Marshall

  5. Don Matthews November 18, 2019 at 6:17 am #

    Great Article from one of the best Homicide Investigators that I have worked for and with in MDPD. After 1967 when E. Wilson Purdy was appointed Director we became a professional Police Department.

    I can say that over the 12 years that I was in and out of Homicide as a Detective, Field Lt and Commander, any and all Jail house rats were polygraphed, then investigated. There were times during those years where either our department or the Janet Reno’s paid between $750,000 to a Million dollars a year for the polygraph exams. We were very lucky to have the professional network of MDPD, Janet Reno’s Office and The Medical Examiner Dr. Joseph Davis.

    Next, may I address Mr/Ms Anonymous’s comments as to the Polygraph and conducting a sound investigation with “Real” evidence. Both Marshall and I were Licensed Polygraph Examiners who have found the you can not beat the instructment, but may beat the examiner, if not trained properly, but the results with a good examiner id well over 90%.

  6. Anthony Frigo November 18, 2019 at 1:33 pm #

    One thing is for sure. Nothing like this would ever happen to a wealthy person
    or someone with influence. There is two standards of justice in the USA ,has and always will be.

  7. Helen R. Frigo November 19, 2019 at 7:40 am #

    Do I understand correctly that Gary Bennett is still in jail? If so, I will write to the Governor and our FL state senator Gayle Harrell. But I hope you, Marshall, have more influence than I do. Right now they are listening to a “physcobiologist” from Harvard testify that recreational marijuana could end up costing FL money.

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