Convicted Brevard killer wants DNA testing

Lawyers for a Brevard County man convicted of murder in 1984 are asking a court to approve DNA testing they hope will overturn another Brevard conviction that relied partly on testimony from a fraudulent dog handler and jailhouse snitches.

Gary Bennett was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison for the murder of his neighbor, Helen Nardi. He maintains his innocence. He passed a lie detector test and could not be tied to the case by a rape kit examination. Several people testified that he was elsewhere when Nardi was sexually assaulted and murdered.

"We're very hopeful the judge will grant the motion," said Paul Casteleiro, a New Jersey attorney representing Bennett. "We feel we have a strong case for innocence here."

In 2004, DNA evidence overturned the rape conviction of Wilton Dedge. Last year, the state dropped charges against William Dillon after DNA testing excluded him from a key piece of evidence in the original case against him.

Both men spent more than 20 years in prison.

In both cases, prosecutors used discredited dog handler John Preston and jailhouse snitches, who were promised reduced sentences for their testimony.

In their 80-page motion seeking DNA testing, Bennett's lawyers say Nardi's murder investigation was plagued by shoddy police work and questionable tactics by the Brevard-Seminole State Attorney's Office.

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.

In the Dillon case, the lead investigator had sex with a key witness.

In 1983, Circuit Judge John Antoon said, "Police misconduct was flagrant" in the Bennett case.

Bennett's legal team also is questioning prosecutors' efforts to reduce the prison sentence of rapist Kenneth Plemmons in exchange for his testimony against Bennett. Plemmons, who confessed to raping a 15-year-old girl at gunpoint, testified that Bennett confessed to the Nardi murder while in the county jail.

But Circuit Judge Tom Waddell said he could not "in good conscience" reduce Plemmons' sentence.

The judge later sent a letter to then-State Attorney Doug Cheshire, chastising his office for relying on jailhouse informants and promising them reduced sentences.

"It's important to note the continuing pattern of using informants and fraudulent experts to manufacture evidence where there is no evidence," said Seth Miller, executive director of the Innocence Project of Florida.

Both Miller and Casteleiro are collaborating with Centurion Ministries, which has worked to free more than 40 people since 1980 with the help of DNA evidence.

Preston, who in 1984 was exposed as a fraud, testified that his dog linked Bennett's scent to the items used to kill Nardi, even though crime scene technicians had preserved the weapons with strong-smelling chemicals.

During another "scent lineup," the dog stopped and urinated on washcloths saturated with blood, including one gathered from the crime scene. That ruined the evidence.

Evidence from the crime scene shows that Nardi had sex less than a few hours before the murder. During Bennett's trial, prosecutors said the sexual assault was the motive for the murder.

Bennett's lawyers want modern technology used to test swabs taken from the victim that may have semen on them as well as a swab of blood found on the refrigerator door, away from the where police said the murder happened.

The Bennett case is being handled by a prosecutor from Orlando. State Attorney Norman Wolfinger, who oversees Brevard County prosecutions, disqualified his office from working on the case because he briefly represented Bennett while he was a public defender.

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