Commentary by PETE SHELLEM /
Of The (Harrisburg, PA) Patriot-News
Sometimes justice happens in spite of the justice system.
Sometimes it only happens when the people in the justice system get their noses rubbed in their messes.
On Tuesday, Lancaster County District Attorney Donald R. Totaro did the right thing by freeing Charles T. "Ted" Dubbs from a 12- to 40-year prison term in two sexual attacks he probably did not commit. Dubbs was sentenced in May 2002.
Wilbur Cyrus Brown, a serial rapist who confessed to 13 other rapes, including one on the same jogging trail where Dubbs supposedly committed his crimes, confessed to those attacks in November.
But Totaro had to spin things to portray his office as a well-oiled machine that immediately turned to fix an honest error when it came to their attention.
That’s not what happened.
The case first came to my attention when Brown pleaded guilty last November and was sentenced in Dauphin County Court. It came out at that hearing that Brown had confessed to crimes for which Dubbs was wasting away in prison still proclaiming his innocence.
When I asked about it afterward - assuming they were going to free an innocent man - I got the exchanged glances, awkward smiles and the "no comments."
It was after that I got the proverbial bug in the ear. The cops figured it was a no-brainer, but Totaro’s office didn’t want to hear it. Maybe it had something to do with the election year.
True, Totaro’s first assistant at the time, Heidi Eakin, pointed out the similarities between the cases. But when members of the task force investigating the serial rapes presented her with Brown's 60-page confession, she got her back up.
When I interviewed her in May, she was adamant that Dubbs was guilty and called his alibi defense "a joke." She speculated Brown was a copycat who committed 13 subsequent rapes after reading about Dubbs’s arrest and conviction.
Eakin said she specifically told the police not to reinterview the victims. When asked what she was doing to investigate the confession she told me "that’s not my job."
As an officer of the court, she was obligated to give the confession to the county public defender’s office. From there, it was forwarded to Dubbs.
Dubbs was on his own. Fortunately, he had the wherewithal to file a post conviction appeal on his own.
If you read the documents filed by Totaro’s office, they go to great pains to explain why Dubbs had to sit in prison for almost a year after his office had compelling evidence Dubbs was innocent. It also appears to be a response to an article published in The Patriot-News in May, an article Totaro called a "hatchet job."
Although he claims his office was investigating the case all along, his petition to release Dubbs says someone was assigned to look into it sometime after March. It was about that time I began asking questions about the case. The Lancaster investigators didn’t interview the detectives who took the confession from Brown until June and they were still under subpoena for a hearing that was supposed to take place Thursday.
Totaro’s filing also says Brown’s initial confession "was originally considered by those in law enforcement who were familiar with the case with a substantial amount of skepticism," because of inconsistencies with the crimes.
In fact, the lead investigators of the task force were the ones that took the confession. Even if some details were wrong, it wasn’t inconceivable that a man who they knew through DNA testing committed an assault on a woman in the same location a year later while Dubbs was in prison and then a dozen more might have committed these "signature crimes."
After duplicating much of the probe that was done at the time of Brown’s confession, Totaro’s investigators interviewed Brown last week and determined he was likely telling the truth. Not only that, he told them that he had written a letter at the time of his arrest admitting those crimes. It was addressed to state police Cpl. George Cronin and sent to his mother with instructions that it only be opened if he died.
To their credit, they located that letter, which seemed to be the clincher in the decision to drop the case against Dubbs.
Dubbs’ conviction was an honest mistake. Although the identification process was flawed, the victims were adamant he was their attacker and only expressed doubts after seeing the video of Brown’s detailed confession.
It’s fortunate it ended the way it did. In many of the wrongful convictions that have been exposed in recent years, dishonest cops were to blame.
If it weren’t for a few conscientious law enforcement officers, Dubbs might have rotted in prison for another decade.
PETE SHELLEM: 717-255-8156 or firstname.lastname@example.org