State lets innocent languish in prison

The lack of shame and humanity is appalling.

Only the most callous of souls could point to someone who lost the majority of his life to a wrongful imprisonment and suggest he is a shining example of justice in America.

In fact, even now -- even with a national justice group claiming that it has found a fourth man wrongfully sentenced to life in prison and connected to the discredited dog handler -- the system churns at a slow grind.

Last week, the state finally agreed to DNA testing for that man, Gary Bennett.

The news was good but also overdue.

It came nearly two months after Bennett's attorneys with the Princeton, N.J.-based Centurion Ministries filed their request for DNA testing -- and more than 25 years after Bennett was first sentenced.

That means Bennett will have waited more than a quarter-century for simply the chance to scientifically prove his guilt or innocence.

Why? Because often, these cases are simply not priorities for our elected officials.

The wrongly convicted, after all, don't constitute a powerful voting bloc. They don't write campaign checks. Many have few friends or family members.

"If there's one thing these guys have in common," said Centurion Ministries attorney Paul Casteleiro, "it's that they are all guys nobody will miss."

They didn't have the resources to mount vigorous defenses when they were first charged -- or knowledgeable attorneys who could combat the tactics, such as jail-house snitches, that are so often used to convict them.

Bad things happen when you convict the wrong man. Many bad things.

Sandy D'Alemberte, the former president of both Florida State University and the American Bar Association, detailed those things in his letter to the Florida Supreme Court that called for creating the Florida Actual Innocence Commission.

Taxpayers spend money housing and feeding someone they shouldn't. They can end up paying even more in compensation if innocence is later proven.

Freedom is unjustly stolen.

"Most important," D'Alemberte wrote, "when an innocent person is imprisoned, the actual criminal goes free and remains a danger to society."

Memo: Scott Maxwell can be reached at smaxwell@orlandosentinel.com or 407-420-6141.

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