Posts Tagged ‘John Preston’

FBI To Review 27 Death Penalty Cases for Faulty Forensic Testimony

Alejandra de la Fuente — July 23, 2013 @ 3:33 PM — Comments (2)

A review of more than 21,000 cases has revealed twenty-seven death penalty cases in which the FBI’s forensic experts may have exaggerated the scientific conclusions that could be drawn from a so-called “match” between a hair found at the scene of a crime and hair of the defendant. It is not known how many cases involve errors, how many led to wrongful convictions, or how many mistakes may now jeopardize valid convictions. Those questions will be explored as the review continues.

The discovery of the more than two dozen capital cases promises that the examination could become a factor in the debate over the death penalty. Some opponents have long held that the execution of an innocent person would solidify doubts about capital punishment. But if DNA or other testing confirms convictions, it would strengthen supporters’ arguments that the system works.

At least three Florida men, including DNA exonerees Wilton Dedge and William Dillon, were convicted based on, among other things, testimony provided by John Preston, who claimed that his dogs could perform feats of forensic detection far beyond the abilities of other investigative dogs. Preston testified in each case that his dog picked up the scent of the defendant at the scene of the crime, testimony that all but sealed their fate. By now, though, his claims have been thoroughly discredited by experts in the field of scent tracking, media reports, multiple state supreme courts, police training manuals, and law review articles.  This leads to the question of why Preston was ever considered reliable in the first place and why more was not done to do a re-review of all cases in which Preston and fraudulent dog handlers like him have testified.

Advocates for defendants and the wrongly convicted called the FBI’s reexamination of possibly faulty forensic conclusions a watershed moment in police and prosecutorial agencies’ willingness to re-open old cases because of scientific errors uncovered by DNA testing. “We didn’t do this to be a model for anyone,” said FBI general counsel Andrew Weissman. “When there’s a problem, you have to face it, and you have to figure how to fix it, move forward and make sure it doesn’t happen again.” FBI Laboratory director Chris Hassell has said that the review will be used to improve lab training, testimony, audit systems, and research.

The review is a huge step forward to improving the criminal justice system and the rigor of forensic science in the United States. Faulty forensics and science is one of the leading causes of wrongful convictions, and a revised approach to forensics could help to reduce that number of miscarriages of justices before the occur. Hopefully we’re not far off from reforms in other leading causes, such as eyewitness identification or snitch testimonies.

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Through the Spiraling Nightmare to Freedom

Alejandra de la Fuente — September 08, 2011 @ 5:11 PM — Comments (1)

I loved the music, but the story was even better. The emotions I experienced during William Michael Dillon’s performance at The Moon September 7 ran the gamut from utter despair to complete elation enhanced by Dillon’s wry humor. Even though I am familiar with his story, it never ceases to amaze.

This tale contains just about all of the elements that can contribute to a wrongful conviction. A young man with a drug conviction out for a night of partying is evasive with cops staking out a murder crime scene. It seems the young man is trying to hide the joint in his hand. He hears later that the cops want to question him so he calls them up and they take him in. He has nothing to hide (since he’s innocent) so he willingly answers their questions, follows their orders and volunteers to take a lie detector test.

In return for his cooperation, the 22-year-old is falsely convicted of murder and serves over 27 years before, through his own handwritten petition and the help of the Florida Innocence Project, he is released from prison and eventually exonerated. But if we let the story end here, we fail to grasp Dillon’s message. While he does not dwell on the past, he learned from it to face the future a wiser man. So should we all.

It can happen to any of us. When police and prosecutors, such as those in Brevard County in this instance, manufacture false evidence, intimidate and threaten witnesses into lying on the stand, and basically decide that someone is guilty because it looks that way and they need to close the case – it can happen to any of us. In spite of the fact that witnesses recanted testimony almost immediately and that testimony put Dillon essentially in three places at once, the jury still convicted him. In spite of the fact that a major prosecution witness was engaged in a sexual relationship with one of the detectives, the jury still convicted him. In spite of the fact there was not a shred of physical evidence to tie Dillon to the crime, the jury still convicted him. In spite of the fact two witnesses provided an alibi, the jury still convicted him. And it took over 27 years to right the wrong.

Dillon’s message delivered both through song and story is one we should all take to heart. It can be a dangerous world out there. Take care. And even though Dillon pointed out with glee to all the lawyers present that he’s “one for one” in writing successful petitions, I’ll bet he would add one more piece of advice. If you run into trouble with the law, call an attorney and remain silent.

My advice is to buy Dillon’s CD and don’t miss an opportunity to see him perform. You won’t regret it.

The CD, Black Robes and Lawyers, is available on iTunes, click here.

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No Room For Anger

Alejandra de la Fuente — August 04, 2011 @ 10:23 AM — Comments (0)

Tavis Smiley, the nationally known talk show host, recently highlighted, the work of Northwestern University’s Center on Wrongful Convictions. Smiley’s guests included four men who have been exonerated, and the Rev. Jesse Jackson, founder of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition.

Of the four men who shared stories of their wrongful convictions and subsequent incarcerations, one panelist, Johnnie Savory, had served the longest prison sentence: 30 years for a crime he did not commit. Wilder “Ken” Berry, another panelist, was a former probationary police officer at the University of Chicago in 1991, when he was arrested for a sexual assault he did not commit. He served eight years of a 35 year sentence before he, too, was exonerated. Since his release, he has been employed as a senior paralegal at one of the city’s law firms, serving on the firm’s pro bono committee.

Johnnie Savory is an articulate man, well-groomed, conscientious, and humble. He speaks to young people at various communities across the city. Youth involvement will, he theorizes, also serve a greater purpose: It can operate as a catalyst in terms of broadening their scope of association to (and with) the community, and it can, as well, provide a sense of cooperative spirit, pride,  kinship, and convergence within the community in which they live.

Savory’s desire to give back to the community occupies a prominent place in his professional life. He does not, however, shy away from personal goals and objectives. He has never been married, which, a viewer can presume, is the result of his 30-year incarceration. While many offenders in the penal system, guilty or innocent, may be privileged to have the support of a spouse or family unit awaiting an impending release, many prisoners, depending upon the length of their prison sentences, must learn to re-navigate the social and familial structures of relationships once they are released.

James Bain, who at the time of his release had the dubious distinction of having served, at 35 years, the nation’s longest prison sentence for a crime he did not commit, had the support of his family during his incarceration in the Florida prison system. Convicted in 1974, at age 19, and released in December 2009, on the scientific evidence of DNA, he emerged from the courthouse in Bartow, Polk County, Florida, on the day of his release, wearing a black t-shirt emblazoned with the words “Not Guilty,” and sporting a wide grin. Following a judge’s order vacating his conviction, he stood on the courthouse steps, humble, composed, and graciously responded to the myriad questions spewing forth from reporters. By his side, in protective mode, were Seth Miller, Executive Director of the Innocence Project of Florida (IPF), and Melissa Montle, IPF Staff Attorney.

Like Johnnie Savory, however, James was neither angry, defiant, nor bitter. He spoke of his faith in God and how He directed his path while he was in prison—and how he will allow Him to continue to guide him during his freedom. At first, his responses to the onslaught of questions regarding his incarceration as well as his future life of freedom seemed a bit short and carefully monitored. As the impromptu interview continued, however, he appeared more comfortable and at ease, and willingly engaged in respectful dialogue with reporters and others during this momentous occasion. He offered himself to curious inquiry and deliberate inquests. Prison, I can only imagine, is an institution where subtleties and humbleness of new beginnings are not only learned but carefully practiced as well.

The State of Florida pays wrongly convicted persons $50,000 for every year of their incarceration (there are exceptions, read more). As a result, James has been awarded a substantial amount of money in an effort to compensate for the State’s egregious miscarriage of justice and to help him rebuild his life. The Innocence Project of Florida helped him secure the services of financial planners who have guided him in the dispensation of funds, allowing him to enjoy a life unencumbered by the receipt of sudden resources.

Since his release he has spoken at various venues across the country and has traveled to Germany to tell his story, and he has indicated that he wishes to earn his high school equivalency diploma and possibly attend college. With the help of a new partner in his life and the support of his family, he appears to be on the right footpath to claim all of what he missed during his incarceration and all that he desires (and is capable of achieving) in his freedom. Like Johnnie Savory, James Bain will continue to grow and achieve and make the best of what life has to offer. Bitterness, anger, and resentfulness are not, however, part of his (or Johnnie Savory’s) agenda.

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More About Snitch Testimony in Dillon

Seth — November 05, 2009 @ 10:50 AM — Comments (0)

As we chronicled here on Tuesday,  Roger Dale Chapman, who testified during William Dillon’s 1981 trial that Dillon made a jailhouse confession, attended Dillon’s compensation hearing on Monday to set the record straight.  The news reports don’t really do this riveting moment justice.  So I wanted to recount what occurred from my perspective at counsel’s table:

  • While Dillon was on the stand, he was asked about his time in the county jail.  He noted that while he in jail after arrest, he was in a large cell with upwards of 20 inmates and a story about the Dvorak murder came on the TV.  Many people asked him about it and Bill stated that he told them “I had nothing to do with that there.”
  • Dillon also stated that he did not know Roger Dale Chapman, and therefore didn’t know if he had ever spoken with him at the jail.  The first time he found out about Chapman was when Chapman was on the stand testifying to the jailhouse confession at trial.
  • Then Dillon was dismissed and counsel called Roger Dale Chapman to the astonishment of the hearing officers and just about everyone in the room.
  • Chapman stated that he was in the county jail after being falsely accused of rape.  A Sheriff’s Office Agent, Thom Fair, came to him in the jail and made him an agent of the State for the purposes of soliciting damaging admissions from Dillon.  Fair threatened Chapman with jail time if he didn’t comply.
  • Chapman then stated that he went into the “bullpen” where Dillon was being held with many other inmates and, when the story of the murder came on the TV with a picture of Dillon, he asked Dillon whether he did it and Dillon protested his innocence vehemently.
  • Several days later, Fair came back to the jail to meet Chapman.  At this point Fair already knew that medical testing came back which demonstrated that Chapman could not have committed rape.   Yet, when Chapman stated that Dillon didn’t give him anything and maintained his innocence, Fair held out his hand and stated “I have your life in the palm of my hand and if you don’t give me something on Dillon, I can make that rape charge come back.”
  • Fair also told Chapman that they had Dillon as their “fall guy.”
  • Chapman then stated that he didn’t have anything to say so Fair decided to record a statement by Chapman which would implicate Dillon, only when Fair asked the questions about the specifics of the crime, another investigator held up the answers so Chapman could parrot them back for the recording and the eventual transcribed statement.
  • Dillon’s counsel also entered into evidence secret handwritten notes from Dean Moxley, the Chief Assistant State Attorney, indicating that Chapman may have been made an agent of the State and that they already gave him a bond reduction and they should probably enter into a deal with him.
  • Chapman then testified at trial that Dillon confessed to him in jail with detail about the crime.  Chapman’s rape charge was dropped in exchange.
  • After this testimony, Chapman apologized to Dillon for contributing to his wrongful conviction.

Obviously, none of this was turned over to the defense before trial and at trial, the State insisted that there was no deal.

This is the most pernicious kind of misconduct.  Law enforcement had their mind made up and then just needed to fabricate the evidence to fit that preconceived notion.    We call this tunnel vision.

This misconduct seems to have been the norm in Brevard County in the 1980s and the John Preston+snitch formula worked for the State in Dedge and Dillon, and we’ll find out whether it worked in the case of Gary Bennett.

Either way, this is the beginning of the pulling back of the curtain of the muck that regularly served to cause wrongful convictions in Brevard.  I suspect it won’t be the last we hear.

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NY Times Article on Dog-scent Lineups

Alejandra de la Fuente — November 04, 2009 @ 6:11 PM — Comments (0)

Yesterday the New York Times ran a good article on dog-scent lineups looking particularly at cases in Texas involving that state’s version of discredited dog handler John Preston (see previous coverage of Preston here, here, here, and here.

According to the Times, Deputy Keith A. Pikett of the Fort Bend County, Tex., Sheriff’s Department, serves as a consultant to law enforcement agencies around Texas using his home-trained bloodhounds (named Columbo, Quincy and Clue) and has performed thousands of scent lineups since the 1990s.

The controversy surrounding him and the cases on which he has worked is essentially a mirror of what’s gone on in this state with John Preston. Makes you wonder how widespread the use of dog-scent lineups is in other states around the country, and more importantly, how many innocent individuals are wrongfully incarcerated as a result

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Gary Bennett article in Florida Today

Alejandra de la Fuente — November 02, 2009 @ 12:18 PM — Comments (1)

Last week I posted a blog about Gary Bennett, who has spent 25 years in jail due in part to John Preston and his scent dogs. Today an article runs in Florida Today outlining Gary Bennett’s case and his pursuit for DNA testing.

Bennett was convicted in the 1984 rape and murder of his neighbor, Helen Nardi, despite contradicting evidence such as alibis from several witnesses stating he was elsewhere, passing a polygraph, and no conclusive results tying him to the crime. The details of the crime and the circumstances surrounding the victim are quite revolting.

Nardi was 55 when she was stabbed to death with an ice pick, a pair of scissors and possibly a steak knife and a screwdriver.

Records in the case indicated that she was having regular sexual relations with her 65-year-old son-in-law, a man who married Nardi’s 16-year-old daughter when he was 53.

The state allowed the marriage to spare Nardi’s daughter from being put into the child welfare system because Nardi allegedly sold her for sexual favors to pay the rent.

The son-in-law, Kermit Parkins, was never considered a suspect in the case despite the unusual relationships. Later, police discovered that Parkins used to rent a trailer from the lead investigator in the case, Palm Bay police Detective Leroy Dunning.

The personal relationship with lead investigator Dunning explains why Parkins was exempt as a suspect, which he should have been from the moment they discovered his affair with Nardi. As the article points out, this situation is similar to that in Bill Dillon’s case where the lead investigator had sexual relations with a key witness.

Centurion Ministries alongside with the Innocence Project of Florida are helping Bennett to obtain the DNA testing that could prove his innocence and hopefully re-investigate the case, taking Parkins in as a key suspect.

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Another Man Convicted by Preston’s Dogs

Alejandra de la Fuente — October 27, 2009 @ 9:26 AM — Comments (3)

Gary Bennett, who has spent 25 years in prison, may be the fourth person exonerated in Brevard County based on John Preston’s scent dogs. Since being convicted with rape and murder in 1984, Bennett has claimed his innocence. Now he has several innocence projects on his side – New Jersey’s Centurion Ministries and the Innocence Project of Florida. The request for DNA testing in Bennett’s case was filed last Friday.

Florida officials have been pushed for years to run an investigation on all the cases John Preston testified in too see if any others may have been wrongfully convicted, yet Governor Charlie Crist, Attorney General Bill McCollum and State Attorney Norm Wolfinger still refuse.

“It is simply nonsensical to say that this is the way that the system is supposed to work,” said the Innocence Project of Florida’s Seth Miller, who is serving as local counsel for the Centurion Ministries. “Waiting two-and-a-half decades for a chance at justice is not justice.”

Officials with the Centurion Ministries agree.

Centurion Ministries is a truly miraculous organization. They have exonerated more than 40 people since their founding in 1980. Undoubtedly one of the longest standing innocence projects, exonerating a large amount of people.

For more on John Preston, take a look at our previous blogs about him.

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The FBI’s new scent technology

Alejandra de la Fuente — September 29, 2009 @ 10:59 AM — Comments (1)

According to an Indianapolis news station, the FBI has developed a new scent preservation technology that can “literally bottle up a person’s distinct odor.”

The STU 100 Portable Vacuum Collection Unit absorbs the scent into a sterile pad, which makes it possible for the scent to be accessed later when needed. Ideally, the uncontaminated scent pads will be taken to K-9 units for tracking.

It seems a rather inconvenient time for the FBI to put this technology to use with all the current uproar about the unreliability of scent dogs, especially with the growing number of exonerations due to dogs’ mistakes. Since our last mention of Keith Pikett, the Texas Deputy responsible for the bloodhounds that put innocents like Calvin Lee Miller and Michael Buchanek behind bars, there has been at least one more innocent person (Curvis Bickham) released from prison who was put there partly due to Pikett’s dogs. And of course, there were many more innocent people convicted because of John Preston’s dogs. Perhaps we should come to terms with the fact that scent is another junk science and we should put it aside.

If you’d like to learn more about the unreliability of scent dogs, here is an interesting report from the Innocence Project of Texas entitled “Dog Scent Lineups: A Junk Science Injustice,” released last Monday.

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Bill Dillon on the Radio

Seth — August 04, 2009 @ 5:25 PM — Comments (1)

Bill Dillon appeared on Deminski and Doyle on 94.7 WCSX, Detroit’s Rock Station to talk about his case.  The segment lasted roughly 13 minutes and is a really great conversation on Bill’s case and the corruption that is systemic in Brevard County.

It is exciting that Bill’s case and the infamous John Preston is becoming a national story, and this should be a lesson to folks in power who think that they can avoid this issue because the public doesn’t care.

You can listen to the segment here.

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Well Said: Florida Today Questions Legitimacy of Wolfinger Investigation

Seth — August 03, 2009 @ 8:50 AM — Comments (0)

Yesterday, Florida Today’s editorial board asserted that the proposed Brevard State Attorney investigation into the John Preston cases does not go far enough as it is narrowly tailored to rape and murder cases where the defendant is still in prison.

We argued pretty much the same thing last week stating that the investigation should include any case that Preston even sneezed at and we wondered whether Wolfinger and his people can even be trusted to perform such an investigation considering that they have performed two such investigations in the past, one of which they approved of Preston’s work and the other they never found Bill Dillon’s case who was later exonerated.

A week has gone by and we still think that this investigation is more likely an attempt to make this whole mess go away now so it will not be politically inconvenient for Wolfinger as he begins another run for State Attorney.

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