Dog handler led to bad evidence

Calls grow for reinvestigating cases from 1980sBY JOHN A. TORRESand JEFF SCHWEERS
Scorned as a "charlatan" by the Arizona Supreme Court and a fraud by a retired judge and others, a dog handler who helped the state convict dozens of people haunts Brevard County criminal cases 25 years after he was discredited.
John Preston, who died last year, testified in the 1980s trials of three Brevard men who have since been released with overturned convictions or dropped charges.
Now, the Innocence Project, which helped free Juan Ramos, Wilton Dedge and William Dillon, is looking into a fourth case involving Preston: the murder conviction of Gary Bennett in 1984.
Calls are growing for State Attorney Norm Wolfinger and his staff to reinvestigate and reopen more cases in which convictions may have been tainted by Preston's questionable word, as well as reliance on jailhouse informants. Some allege corruption by prosecutors at the time.
"If Norm Wolfinger had one iota of integrity, he would say it's outrageous and investigate the cases," said Titusville attorney Sam Bardwell, a former prosecutor here. "John Preston was a total fraud, and everyone knew it."
The State Attorney's Office has said it couldn't provide a list of cases involving the dog handler, but a FLORIDA TODAY archives and records search found more than 15 of 60 reported Brevard cases.
In a fax Friday, Wolfinger said only Bennett and another man remain in prison after trials in which Preston testified as an expert.
FLORIDA TODAY's research showed some convicts in the Preston-related cases have been released after serving their sentences. Some have died.
A public defender in the 1980s when Preston was an active witness, Wolfinger had issued a statement Wednesday saying it's the responsibility of convicted people to seek relief. He did not answer questions from FLORIDA TODAY.
"Defendants have had rights in Florida to challenge their convictions through a well established post-conviction process," the statement said. "Historically, that has been through a Rule 3.850 motion. More recently, that right has been expanded to DNA testing through Rule 3.853.
"Those provisions have procedures which defendants must follow, as well as potential rights to appointment of an attorney and having the public pay for costs if a hearing or testing is allowed by the court."
Attorney quit
Bardwell first encountered Preston while working as a prosecutor in the Frank Berry rape case in 1981. Bardwell did not want to use Preston's testimony, but he said he was pressured by others.
"The guy would show up at the State Attorney's Office asking if anyone needed help with a case," Bardwell said.
Berry was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison.
Though Bardwell thought Berry was guilty of the charges, he said the corruption he witnessed caused him to abandon prosecutions and take up private practice as a defense attorney.
"I left the State Attorney's Office because I could not abide by the fabrication of evidence," Bardwell said.
Berry is the second man Wolfinger identified as in prison in a Preston-related case. He called him a "serial rapist."
"Mr. Berry not only has a prior sexual battery and a subsequent escape sentence, his taped confession was played at trial, and he continues to admit his guilt to prison officials," Wolfinger said in Friday's fax.
Crist bows out
The Innocence Project of Florida has called for the governor to appoint a special prosecutor to look into the Preston cases. Seth Miller, executive director of the nonprofit group, has been outspoken about what he calls "widespread corruption" in Brevard County in the early 1980s.
"Preston was being fed information that allowed him to understand certain facts about the case that enabled him to manufacture evidence in order to get the conviction," Miller said. "Not only do we have to free the folks who are innocent, who were put into prison because of this testimony, but we have to hold the people who did this accountable."
Through a spokesman last week, Gov. Charlie Crist said he won't appoint a prosecutor, agreeing with Wolfinger.
"We believe this is a judicial issue and should be handled on a case-by-case analysis through the judicial system," spokesman Sterling Ivey said after consulting with legal staff. "There are methods by which new evidence can be filed in a case, and this is the appropriate course of action to take."
Attorney Jennifer Greenberg, who helped exonerate Dedge in 2004, said it is unfair to expect inmates decades later to know of developments in related cases, nor how to file for relief.
"Just gathering up the info on all Preston's doings would be virtually impossible, let alone getting into court in a timely fashion to actually get the issue heard," she said. "Post-conviction time deadlines, the necessity of investigative work and the pleading requirements totally prohibit inmates from receiving due process or fundamental fairness."
Judge's action
In the late 1970s, Preston went from a $20,000-a-year job as a Pennsylvania state trooper to a highly paid expert who testified in cases for the FBI, the U.S. Postal Service and Orange, Palm Beach, Brevard and Seminole counties, as well as for Arizona, Ohio and other states. He was paid $300 a day, according to documents.
Retired 18th Circuit and appellate Judge Gil Goshorn put Preston and his dogs to a test and ultimately refused to allow him to present himself as an expert in 1984.
Goshorn was ready to testify late last year in hearings on behalf of Dillon, convicted of a 1981 murder in which Preston testified, but the state first granted Dillon a new trial because of DNA evidence.
"The elected state attorney at that time, Doug Cheshire, relied heavily on Preston in a number of cases and frequently offered him as an expert," Goshorn stated in a sworn affidavit in 2008. "Cheshire also was a prolific user of jailhouse 'snitches.' Cheshire's office often relied on such evidence of dubious reliability."
Cheshire was voted out of office in 1984, when Wolfinger became state attorney. Cheshire died in 1997.
Failed test
Goshorn's test of the dog handler's scent-tracking ability involved two lawyers jogging down separate paths. The following morning, the dog was given one lawyer's sweat-soaked shirt to see if the dog could follow the trail. The dog failed.
Goshorn told Preston that he would give him a second chance a day later, but the handler and his dog left town and never testified in Brevard again.
"It is my belief that the only way Preston could achieve the results he achieved in numerous other cases was having obtained information about the case prior to the scent tracking so that Preston could lead the dog to the suspect or evidence in question," Goshorn continued in his affidavit. "I believe that Preston was regularly retained to confirm the state's preconceived notions about a case."
Prosecutors, including ones in Brevard, continued using Preston's services after a 1983 federal investigation initiated by the U.S. Postal Service. It said Preston routinely asked investigators for information about a case before using the dog and that he led his dog to supply wanted results.
Newspaper accounts said Brevard agencies paid Preston at least $37,429 for work done in the first half of 1984, including in the Bennett trial.
Preston's cases were overturned in Arizona, where the state's highest court referred to him as a "charlatan."
Bennett case
The Innocence Project wouldn't address its involvement in the Bennett case, except to say it was one that their attorneys are looking into. The case fits a pattern similar to those of Ramos, Dedge and Dillon.
Bennett, now seeking new DNA testing, was convicted in part on evidence provided by Preston and testimony of two cellmates who said he talked about killing his Palm Bay neighbor in 1984.
Prosecutors argued that Preston's dog identified Bennett's scent on the murder weapon in the 1984 case. But two scent tests failed when the tracking dog -- after sniffing Bennett's clothing -- failed to pick the murder weapons from lineups of similar weapons.
Bennett's palm print and fingerprint also were reportedly found at the murder scene.
Innocence Project leader Miller has an investigator looking into Preston's Brevard connection, hoping to help more people such as Dillon out of prison.
Memories differ
Preston testified in the Dillon case after his dog tracked Dillon across State Road A1A to the murder scene, then tied him to a bloody T-shirt. DNA evidence has since precluded Dillon from wearing the shirt.
Former Judge Stanley Wolfman, who presided over the Dillon trial, called the dog-tracking evidence troubling.
"It was kind of flimsy. They had this dog tracking across A1A with all the traffic going by there, and I just shook my head internally and (the defense attorney) did not attack it," Wolfman said. "It was just poor evidence as far as I could see."
Defense attorney Karen Brandon, who helped prosecute Dillon, said she presented evidence to the jury that was provided to her by the sheriff's office. She denied knowledge of any corruption in the State Attorney's Office.
"At the time, there was absolutely no reason to believe that Mr. Preston was less than forthright and that his evidence was less than valid," she said.
Dedge was awarded a new trial when Preston was discredited, but the introduction of notorious jailhouse snitch Clarence Zacke in his second trial sealed a second conviction against him. He was released in 2004 when DNA evidence proved that the semen found inside the rape victim did not belong to him.
Ramos, a Cuban immigrant, was arrested in 1982 for the rape and murder of his neighbor, even though no physical evidence tied him to the scene. Preston's testimony, however, was damning and Ramos was sentenced to death.
After four years on death row, the Florida Supreme Court reversed Ramos' conviction in 1986, citing the unreliability of the dog evidence. Ramos was acquitted at a retrial and released in 1987, when he moved to Miami.
Russo joins
In December, longtime Public Defender J.R. Russo joined those calling for an investigation.
"Mr. Wolfinger is very well-versed in the quality of the dog testimony," he said. "I'm surprised they are not going back to look at these cases."
But at the time, Wolfinger responded by saying defendants and their attorneys have been free to bring any motions they deem appropriate before the courts.
"Evidentiary challenges to the admissibility of the dog evidence by defense attorneys began and was well-publicized before I became state attorney," he said.
Contact Torres at 242-3649 or jtorres@floridatoday.com

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