Did magical dog jail a 4th innocent man?

In hindsight, it's hard to believe that John Preston and his magical dog were ever allowed to testify in court.

Preston's claims — that his dog could track scents through water, even years after a suspect supposedly left them — were preposterous. And Preston was, ultimately, discredited in court.

Since then, three of the Brevard County men whom Preston helped convict subsequently had their convictions overturned.

Now comes word there may be a fourth: another man still in prison more than two decades after Preston and his German shepherd provided the key evidence allegedly tying him to the scene of the crime.

"There are a lot of similarities between this case and the others," said Brevard-Seminole's assistant public defender, Mike Pirolo. "I mean, it's scary how similar many of these cases are."

What's also scary is how many of these cases have yet to be scrutinized

Preston testified in dozens of Central Florida cases in the early '80s. A judge would later say prosecutors retained Preston and his act "to confirm the state's preconceived notions about cases."

And yet, until now, there has been no thorough check to see whether others were wrongfully convicted as well.

That, however, is starting to change.

•A national legal group has taken up the cause of the fourth person.

•The Public Defender's Office in Brevard opening a broader inquiry of its own.

•And this tale of perverted justice will get a national audience tonight when Anderson Cooper is slated to spotlight Preston and his cases during his 10 o'clock show on CNN.

Meanwhile, as others search for justice, some of Florida's highest-placed officials — Gov. Charlie Crist, Attorney General Bill McCollum and Brevard-Seminole State Attorney Norm Wolfinger — remain uninvolved and unmoved.

A gruesome murder

The biggest news is the emergence of nationally renowned Centurion Ministries, a faith-based legal group in Princeton, N.J., that has helped exonerate more than 40 people.

Centurion is taking on the case of Gary Bennett, a Palm Bay man convicted in the 1983 murder of 54-year-old Helen Nardi.

Nardi's death was a gruesome one.

According to Sentinel reports from the time, she was found stabbed 26 times in the neck, chest and back with an ice pick, steak knife, screwdriver and pair of scissors. The ice-pick blade and scissors were left embedded in her nude body.

Prosecutors, however, needed to tie Bennett to the weapons, which Preston and his dog helped do. The dog first sniffed Bennett and then, according to Preston, found the same scent on crucial evidence.

Prosecutors also relied upon fingerprints in the victim's house, which Bennett argued he probably left three days earlier when visiting the victim, whom he knew. They also used testimony from jailhouse snitches — who were promised leniency in exchange for their help.

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