Friday, December 4, 2009

Exonerated man seeks cash for 27-year sentence

That headline makes Mr. Dillon sound mercenary. But considering he lost 27 years for something he didn't do, it does seem appropriate.

It appears that testimony by a jailhouse snitch was the major component that helped convict Mr. Dillon. Why anyone would trust testimony from someone willing to testify for a lighter sentence is beyond me. It seems a policy designed for false testimony.

William Dillon free after 27 years.

SATELLITE BEACH, Fla. – No bars or razor wire hold former Florida inmate No. 082629. Instead, William Dillon sits on furniture the color of ripe lemons, surrounded by cheerful animal statues and blooming plants, a prisoner no longer after 27 years.

He could get more than a million dollars in state compensation for his wrongful imprisonment, though how much he'll get — if anything — is up to lawmakers because he has a prior conviction for felony drug possession. A hearing on the matter took place this week in Tallahassee, though Dillon says it's impossible to put a dollar amount on his freedom.

"When I actually did walk down those steps, I was so lightheaded, felt like I was being lifted down those steps, I really did," Dillon recently told The Associated Press. "It was so awesome. I don't think I can ever replace that feeling, coming out of there after so many years of feeling I never, ever would."

Dillon, 50, walked out of the Brevard County jail last November after tests showed that DNA found on the killer's shirt — which investigators recovered, splattered with the victim's blood — wasn't his. A month later, prosecutors announced they wouldn't retry him for the 1981 bludgeoning death of James Dvorak, and his conviction was erased.

Dillon, one of more than 200 inmates exonerated by DNA nationwide, plans to move to Tallahassee soon so he can be available during those hearings. Under the state's automatic formula, Dillon would receive $1.35 million — $50,000 for every year in prison.

Eric Ferrero, a spokesman in the Innocence Project's national office, said 27 states currently have compensation laws on the books. Of those states, Florida is the only one where a roadblock occurs if the former inmate already had a felony conviction on his record.

Norman Wolfinger, the state attorney in Brevard County, said in a letter to the Legislature that while there isn't enough evidence to convict Dillon again, lawmakers should consider that his innocence isn't proven, either.

Dillon cried while testifying Monday at his first compensation hearing. Afterward, he said he forgave the jailhouse snitch who recanted his 1981 trial testimony that Dillon had confessed to the murder. Roger Dale Chapman testified Monday that detectives told him they'd send him to prison on a fabricated rape charge if he didn't lie.

Although it isn't feasible, Dillon said he would prefer that his compensation be paid by the prosecutors and law enforcement agents he believes railroaded him — not taxpayers.

"I think the people that did it to me — knowingly did it to me — should have to pay for it," he said.

Admittedly cocky during the 1981 investigation, Dillon was angry when he went to prison. He said he grew suicidal after a parole hearing a few years ago, when he was given a possible release date of 2043. He mourned the loss of children he would never have, a youth that was stolen and the holidays he would miss. But he "settled it" for himself when he realized rage would do no good.

Dillon walked out of jail last year wearing a T-shirt that read "Not Guilty" and a grin. At first, nothing was easy. After almost three decades under the dim glow of prison lights, Dillon was uncomfortable in the black of night. He couldn't eat unless he was told. When he tried to buy a dozen chocolate doughnuts at a grocery store, he held up the line for an uncomfortable lesson on debit card machines.

"Everything that was out here had completely changed to me," he said. "It was like I was Fred Flintstone that came out."

He ate lasagna with his family on his first day home, and he celebrated Thanksgiving with loved ones a few days later. In the year that followed, he gained a few pounds and grew some facial hair. He still plays guitar, an instrument he picked up behind bars, and now talks of going back to school.

Dillon and Wolfinger both place some blame on John Preston, a dog handler who claimed his animals could track scents months after a suspect was present. He testified his dog found Dillon's scent on the shirt and at the crime scene. He was later discredited and died last year. Preston's testimony was also used against Wilton Dedge, convicted in Brevard in the early 1980s of sexual assault. DNA evidence freed him in 2004, and the Legislature awarded him $2 million.

Now, Dillon focuses on his most powerful weapon against those who wronged him: telling his story to law students and law enforcement agents. He said he harbors no anger toward the system, but he wants the individuals involved in the prosecution and investigation to be held accountable.

"I feel like I'm the thorn in their side right now and I am the scariest thing that they have seen in quite a while compared to the system that they've been running," he said. "My mouth is a dangerous tool on them. Each day I think of more and more stuff that happened that shouldn't have happened. And each day I remember it, it comes closer and closer to getting in their closet."