‘Innocent until proven guilty’ necessary for fair judicial system

The St. Petersburg Times this weekend reported that Wilton Dedge, a convicted rapist, has been wrongfully imprisoned for 22 years. Dedge had been convicted at the age of 20 and spent more than two decades in prison for a crime he did not commit. Such a case should force a re-evaluation of our judicial system, not to mention the death penalty.

Convicted of raping and cutting a 17-year-old girl 65 times with a box cutter, Dedge was sent to jail despite four testimonies placing him elsewhere at the time of the crime. The rape victim said she was “pretty sure” Dedge had been the one who raped her when she happened to run into him a few days after the crime. “It looked like him,” she said according to the Times, while also saying, “But (the rapist) looked taller.” She later said she was sure of his identity.

At the time, a microanalyst visually compared two pubic hairs found at the scene with Dedge’s. “Both similarities and differences were noted between this pubic hair and … the sample from Dedge,” the official report read. “However, the differences were not sufficient to entirely eliminate Dedge as a possible source.”

A dog set on the scent of the rapist also indicated Dedge was the person who had raped the woman.

However, all evidence was circumstantial at best, and with today’s technology, would likely not hold up in modern courts. The ability to analyze DNA further cleared him of the charges.

Even at the time, doubts had been raised. According to the Times, Dedge’s father told the judge, “there is someone out there that did this, and they have not been apprehended.” The judge responded, “Maybe, but the juries I have seen let a lot of guilty ones go — in my mind and the defense attorneys’ minds — that they know are guilty.”

To try someone as guilty in order to right previous wrongs is not an option.

Harsh as the reality of this story is, it could have been much worse. Had the rape victim died, Dedge would likely have ended up on death row. While 22 years in prison is a grim sentence, if, after serving 22 years, the prisoner’s innocence was proven, a death penalty would have been irreversible.

Our judicial system is supposed to function on the basic premise that everyone is innocent until proven guilty. In this case this basic guideline was not followed. In its zeal to punish someone for the crimes committed against the victim — an understandable urge — a young man’s life was put on hold for 22 years and will likely be forever influenced by the regrettable experience.

To protect the fairness of the judicial system — a cornerstone of our free society — cases like this cannot be allowed to happen and the system should be re-evaluated to prevent them.