At about 9 p.m. on June 17, 1986, 24-year-old Linda Zavatkay answered the door of her apartment in Port Salerno, Florida and a young man armed with a butcher knife forced his way in, demanding sex. During a struggle, she suffered a superficial stab wound to the abdomen before her attacker dropped the knife and fled.
Zavatkay called a friend, who had dropped her off just minutes before the attack, and he returned as she called police. She described her attacker as 16 years old, with brown hair and braces on his teeth. When Zavatkay’s friend arrived, he said he had seen her attacker leaving the building.
Police began to interview residents of the apartment complex. One woman said that 18-year-old Todd Neely, who lived next door, matched Zavatkay’s description.
On June 18, police obtained a high school yearbook photograph of Neely at the age of 15 and put it in a photo lineup. Zavatkay, who was in the hospital for her injuries, identified Neely as her attacker.
Although Neely did not have braces and was two years older than Zavatkay’s description, he was arrested on June 20 and charged with attempted murder and burglary. A week later, the friend of Zavatkay’s that she called after the attack also identified Neely.
Neely said that at the time of the attack, he was having dinner at a restaurant with his mother, his sister and a family friend. A computer stamp on their restaurant bill showed they entered at 8:26 p.m. and paid the bill at 9:31 p.m.
After rejecting an offer to plead guilty and serve no prison time, Neely went on trial in Martin County Circuit Court in January 1987. The prosecution contended that during dessert, Neely had left the restaurant in a separate car, driven 11.3 miles to Port Salerno, committed the crime, and then rejoined his family.
Zavatkay identified Neely in court and testified that she had been mistaken about the braces. She said what she saw was the light at her front door glinting off her attacker’s knife.
On January 15, Neely was convicted of attempted murder and burglary by a judge who heard the case without a jury. The following day, another resident of the apartment complex called Neely’s lawyer and said Neely was innocent. The caller identified another teenager in the complex as the attacker, a boy of about 14 or 15, with brown hair and braces on his teeth. The caller said this young man had once exposed himself to their nine-year-old daughter and had been caught in a tree looking into a bedroom window. The caller said he had told police about the youth when officers were questioning residents after the attack.
Neely’s lawyer filed a motion for a new trial based on evidence that Zavatkay had been attacked by this other teenager, and that the prosecution had withheld this evidence of Neely’s innocence, but the motion was rejected. On April 16, 1987, Neely was sentenced to 15 years in prison and lifetime probation, but was released on bond while his conviction was appealed.
In 1988, Neely’s mother was watching a television docudrama about Lenell Geter, a Texan who had been wrongly convicted of a robbery based on the testimony of 11 eyewitnesses. He was exonerated in 1983 after the real robber was arrested.
Neely’s mother decided to hire Geter’s lawyer, Ed Sigel, a Dallas attorney. Sigel sent an investigator to track down the young man with the braces. The investigator found him in Gainesville, Georgia where he was enrolled in a military school. The investigator and a friend of the Neely’s visited the school, posing as parents who were interested in enrolling their sons there. They managed to talk to the youth – who bore a striking resemblance to Neely -- and get their picture taken with him.
The investigator videotaped interviews with several of the young man’s friends at school who said he had bragged about attacking a woman in Florida. Sigel turned over this evidence to the prosecutors, but they continued to insist that Neely was guilty.
Sigel filed a motion for an evidentiary hearing, which was granted by the Florida Fourth District Court of Appeals in 1989. During a recess in the hearing, the lead detective on Neely’s case, who was on the witness stand, sent a message to Sigel asking him to ask him about a conversation the detective had with the trial prosecutor prior to trial. The detective’s message said, “If they ask me the right questions, I can tell them a story that will blow the lid off.”
When the hearing resumed, Sigel posed the question and the detective testified that when he had been deposed by Neely’s trial attorney prior to Neely’s trial, he had casually mentioned the canvass of the apartment complex shortly after the crime - the canvass that had turned up the information about the youth with braces. The detective testified that after the deposition, the prosecutor had chastised him for mentioning the canvass sheets. The detective said the prosecutor told him, “They didn’t ask for the canvass sheets. I told you not to give them anything they didn’t ask for.”
Neither police nor the defense lawyer followed up on the information about the youth.
In March 1989, a judge ruled that the prosecution had “deliberately and actually suppressed vital information” from Neely’s trial lawyer and ordered a new trial. In June 1989, the appeals court upheld the order.
The state moved to retry Neely. On August 24, 1989, the day a preliminary hearing was scheduled, the prosecution disclosed that days earlier, an investigator showed the knife used in the crime to the aunt and uncle of the alternate suspect. Both identified it as one that had been missing from a set they owned and both said they discovered it missing on the day Zavatkay was attacked.
“We have now been convinced that Mr. Neely is not the person who stabbed Linda Zavatkay," Assistant State Attorney Richard Barlow said. He then dismissed the charges. The other suspect was not prosecuted because the statute of limitations had expired.
In 1992, the Florida legislature approved a $150,000 payment to Neely’s family as partial reimbursement for legal fees incurred in fighting the charges against Neely. A wrongful conviction lawsuit against the county was settled for an additional $229,000.
– Maurice Possley