Last year, when Pam Bondi was in the throes of a cut-throat campaign for attorney general, she vowed to be a crusader for justice.
Specifically, she promised to do more than her predecessors about Florida's shameful record of wrongful convictions — a growing problem that costs taxpayers money and the victims decades of their lives.
With votes on the line, Bondi proclaimed her commitment to this cause on TV and in this very paper.
Yet, so far, the evidence of her making good on the promise is scant, particularly when it comes to a heinous string of wrongful convictions in Brevard County that the state has never properly investigated.
I clearly remember talking with her on a Saturday night late in August when she was preparing to go on Fox News and offer her full-throated support for righting these wrongs.
It was three days before the Republican primary. The race was a dead heat. And when Geraldo Rivera offered Bondi the chance to come on his show and talk about the cases, she seized it.
Bondi knew the basic details of the cases — that a fraudulent "dog expert" had helped convict dozens of people in Brevard County in the 1980s. Three of them had already been exonerated after spending a collective half-century behind bars.
Justice advocates were convinced others suffered the same unjust fate.
So Bondi, knowing that I had been writing about these cases, called to get the latest details. I was happy to oblige. With lives on the line, I was talking to any official who cared.
In fact, I had already secured promises from all of the candidates running for A.G. to look into the matter, if elected.
Bondi was one of them.
So, on that night, Bondi went on the air and assured Rivera and his viewers that, if she was elected, the investigation would commence.
I haven't heard one word about these cases since she was elected.
And I have asked every month.
This, my friends, is the plight of the wrongfully convicted.
Their cause is not sexy. Their lobby is not powerful.
The issue is generally one that most people don't care about — until it involves someone they know. Then, they can't understand why everyone else isn't outraged, too.
But wrongful convictions affect more than just those behind bars.
When the wrong person is convicted, the true perpetrator goes free. The public also spends money incarcerating the wrong person, and even more paying them back as penance in the rare cases when the mistake is proven.
Florida has recently started taking the issue more seriously, most notably with the creation of an Innocence Commission to study the systemic problems. With a dozen men exonerated in recent years, this big-picture approach is overdue.
But Bondi and the state should zealously probe the specific cases we already know about.
With the Brevard cases, it all traced back to a charlatan dog-handler named John Preston.
Back in the 1980s, when investigators couldn't pin a crime on a suspect they wanted, they called in Preston. Preston claimed his German Shepherd could do miraculous things — like track scents months after they were left and even through bodies of water.
It was all bogus. A judge later proved as much when Preston's wonder-dog was put on the spot and could barely find his own tail.
But, by then, dozens of people had been convicted. And no one has taken action.
There have only been piecemeal appeals by legal activists. Three of them worked. An appeal for a fourth man is currently under way — three decades after Preston helped convict him.
Bondi said she would change all that.
It's possible that she's still planning on doing so; that other things, like tackling pill mills, have occupied her time. But her office has also spent time sending out statements about things like why Bondi likes Easter.
It would be easy to set the wheels in motion for this overdue investigation.
It needs an outside expert or team, perhaps a former prosecutor or judge — like retired Judge Gilbert Goshorn, the one who exposed Preston as a fraud, ultimately determining "that Preston was regularly retained to confirm the state's preconceived notions about cases."
All of the cases in which Preston testified need to be rechecked, with special attention on the cases Preston's "wonder dog" testimony was key to the conviction.
As someone once told me: "An innocent person shouldn't spend one day behind bars — much less 30 years."
That person was Pam Bondi … back when she was campaigning.
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