New testing that shows a Miramar man serving life in prison for a 1983 rape and murder is not the source of DNA on the victim's body is just one of several troubling issues in the case, according to defense attorneys, experts and a Sun Sentinel review of the evidence.
Among those issues is the track record of the prosecutor, who is now a Broward Circuit judge.
Broward Public Defender Howard Finkelstein said Thursday that the Broward State Attorney's Office should take "a hard, critical look" at its practices in the aftermath of several local exonerations and other questionable convictions that have come to light.
One of his chief concerns, Finkelstein said, is the record of Robert Carney, who prosecuted Caravella and two other men convicted of murder but later released from prison after flaws in the state's cases came to light.
John Purvis, a mentally ill man, was freed after spending nine years in prison for the murder of his Fort Lauderdale neighbor and for leaving her toddler daughter to die. In 1985, just months after he was convicted, Carney and police received a tip that the victim's ex-husband, Paul Hamwi, hired someone to kill her. They closed the case, and Purvis' defense learned about the lead only by chance years later. Hamwi and another man, Paul Serio, ultimately were found guilty of the crimes and sentenced to life in prison.
Christopher Clugston spent 12 years in prison for a 1981 murder in Hallandale Beach. The conviction was based on the testimony of a snitch, who recanted five years later and said he and the real killer framed Clugston. Clugston eventually was granted clemency and freed in 1993.
"I cannot think of another prosecutor anywhere in the U.S. that has put away three innocent people in separate cases," Finkelstein said.
In e-mail to the Sun Sentinel, Carney wrote he had no contact with the Caravella case in more than 25 years.
"Monday morning quarterbacking with information that was not available at the time of trial is not fair criticism," Carney wrote. "I feel confident that whatever criticisms there were about the handling of this case were brought to the attention of the appellate court and thoroughly litigated as they are in every criminal appeal."
Carolyn McCann, the prosecutor now in charge of the Caravella case, said her office is reviewing the DNA evidence and researching how a private lab in California reached its conclusions. Prosecutors have not yet said whether they will oppose or support releasing Caravella.
"I don't feel that any prosecutor, including Rob Carney, would ever want to convict an innocent person," McCann said. "I can assure you that we will do the right thing ... [Broward State Attorney] Mike Satz is taking this very seriously."
Caravella's public defender, Diane Cuddihy, spent Thursday working on a legal request to have his conviction thrown out and seek his release from prison. She hopes to file it Friday.
Cuddihy said Caravella's conviction was based solely on his confession. DNA test results eliminate him as the source of the semen in the victim's body and provide a DNA profile of an unidentified man, she said.
The DNA test proves Caravella's confession was false, Cuddihy said. She said Caravella, whose IQ is 67, was beaten in custody and coerced to confess. Defense nvestigators found a witness in recent years who told them Caravella was hit.
Miramar police spokeswoman Tania Rues said the department is reviewing the case but noted that this is the first time that allegations that Caravella was hit have been raised in the case. "This is the first time we've heard these allegations in the 26 years since the arrest," she said.
Specialists on false confessions and wrongful convictions said the Caravella case is another example of how juveniles and mentally challenged people are vulnerable to confessing to crimes they did not commit. Such suspects want to please authority figures and use information knowingly or unwittingly provided by police, studies show.
"When statements in these kinds of cases get more and more detailed and incriminating, we find that the information can only end up in the suspect's knowledge by a process known as contamination," said Steven Drizin, a Northwestern University law professor and expert on false confessions. "Nine out of 10 times, the source of that information is law enforcement officers."
After he was arrested on an unrelated charge, Caravella made five statements to Miramar police and a Broward Sheriff's Office sergeant over seven days. Cuddihy said the statements were conflicting — from the first statement, in which Caravella got key details wrong, to the fifth, in which some information appeared to have been suggested to him by leading questions. There were also breaks between statements when he continued to speak with police.
A Sun Sentinel review of the evidence shows that in Caravella's first statement, he referred to the 58-year-old victim as a "girl" and said she was taller than him. Caravella is 5 foot-11, and the victim was shorter.
He also said the weapon was a "butcher knife" and a "big long, long knife." In fact, a steak knife was used.
Caravella said three other juveniles stabbed the victim, but only in the chest and that she was left completely nude. He also said he saw no chair at the crime scene, on the grounds of Miramar Elementary School.
By the fifth statement, Caravella said he acted alone, the victim was shorter, he hit her with the leg of a folding chair, her pants were completely off, her shirt was pushed up and her shoes were off. He said that nothing happened to the knife but that he wiped off the handle. He also said he did not choke the victim.
According to the physical evidence, the victim was strangled and suffered 29 stab wounds, including several in areas where Caravella said she was not stabbed. The steak knife used to stab the victim broke and the handle and blade were found separately, and a rigid cafeteria chair, not a folding one, was found at the scene. The victim's pants were pulled down over her right shoe which was still on her foot.
Paula McMahon can be reached at pmcmahon@SunSentinel.com or 954-356-4533.