Last week, after spending 28 years in prison for a murder he did not commit William Dillon was finally freed. DNA testing conducted by the Florida Innocence Project convinced prosecutors in Brevard County, Florida not to re-try Dillon for the 1981 murder. A story in the Florida Today newspaper recounted the numerous acts of prosecutorial misconduct in Dillon’s case that led to this miscarriage of justice.
Dillon was convicted based on the testimony of a handful of unreliable witnesses, including a discredited expert, whose testimony was used to convict two other men in Florida – Wilton Dedge and Juan Ramos. Both of their convictions were later overturned. Another questionable tactic that led to Dillon’s wrongful conviction included the use of a witness who slept with an investigator for the State. She later recanted her story but the damage had already been done.
This is not the first time prosecutorial misconduct played a role in a wrongful conviction. Dillon’s case only represents one of what may have become a common occurrence in the Florida State Attorney’s office.
Evidence of pervasive prosecutorial misconduct in Florida is not inconsistent with other national studies on this issue. In 2003, a study conducted by the Center for Public Integrity found that since 1970, at least 2,012 convictions, indictments, or sentences have been reversed due to prosecutorial misconduct. By analyzing the data provided by the Center for Public Integrity, The Justice Project found that in the state of Florida specifically, of the cases that were reviewed by the courts on claims of prosecutorial misconduct, over 44% of those cases were eventually overturned. This rate of misconduct is much greater than any other state reviewed in the study.
Procedural reforms, such as those outlined in The Justice Project’s policy reviews on jailhouse snitch testimony, expanded discovery laws, and the practice and use of forensic science, can curb the ability of prosecutors to utilize unreliable witnesses, withhold important exculpatory evidence, or present faulty forensic evidence. However, without prosecutorial accountability, prosecutorial misconduct can still lead to wrongful convictions. Unfortunately, both national and local studies of prosecutorial misconduct reveal that prosecutors are rarely punished even for the most egregious abuses of power. Within the criminal justice system, there is a dangerous and pervasive lack of prosecutorial accountability. Nowhere is this lack of accountability more clear than in the state of Florida.
As such, I join Florida Today and the Florida Innocence Project in their call for a special investigation into the Florida State Attorney’s office. Abuse of prosecutorial power only facilitates wrongful convictions, subverts justice, and jeopardizes public safety. Investigating the prosecutors who might be responsible for the miscarriages of justice in Florida would be a critical first step in preventing acts of misconduct in the future.
In 2009, the Justice Project will release Prosecutorial Accountability: A Policy Review, which will detail comprehensive recommendations for an effective system of prosecutorial accountability. Only when the most powerful actors in the criminal justice system are held accountable for their actions, and sanctioned for their misconduct, can states be confident in the fairness and reliability of criminal trials.
John F. Terzano is President of The Justice Project, a nonpartisan organization that works to increase fairness and accuracy in the criminal justice system.