(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.