Friday, August 15, 2008

Prisoner hopes evidence will set him free

William Dillon, 48, speaks at Hardee Correctional Institution about the 27 years he has spent in prison for a murder he says he did not commit. Recent DNA testing of crucial evidence in the case could back up his claim. (Craig Rubadoux, FLORIDA TODAY)

After 27 years, Dillon's attorneys cite faulty evidence used at trial


BOWLING GREEN -- William Dillon plays the dream over and over in his head in his prison cell east of St. Petersburg, 130 miles from his childhood home on the Space Coast.

He is standing in a crowded courtroom. A judge bangs his gavel and grants his freedom.

Then, after greeting loved ones, Dillon does the thing he says he has longed for most during his 27 years behind bars: The 48-year-old goes swimming.

"Being able to swim, in the ocean or pool, that's really the main thing I miss," Dillon said during a recent exclusive interview at Hardee Correctional Institution. "I used to be an excellent swimmer. I just miss that feeling of being underwater. That's what I miss the most."

Dillon's freedom could be one step closer, as his attorneys -- including the Innocence Project of Florida -- prepare to file a motion calling for his immediate release based on new DNA test results.

The Satellite Beach man has spent 27 years of a life sentence in prison for the murder of James Dvorak of Indian Harbour Beach. FLORIDA TODAY first reported on the DNA evidence last month. "I don't know what the world is anymore," Dillon said, his steely gray eyes nearly a perfect match with the prison bars.

The motion could be filed as early as today. A judge could grant his freedom, schedule a hearing or deny the motion, which prosecutors say is the right choice.

The recent DNA tests on a key piece of evidence -- a bloody shirt involved in the murder -- exclude Dillon as the person who wore the shirt. Someone else's DNA was in sweat stains on the armpits and neckline.

"The DNA results devastate the state's case against Dillon," said Seth Miller, attorney with the Innocence Project of Florida, a nonprofit that works to exonerate prisoners using DNA evidence.

He said the shirt was the primary physical evidence used to link Dillon with the crime. Now, he said, the shirt is "powerful evidence of innocence."

Assistant State Attorney Wayne Holmes, now representing the state in the case against Dillon, said last month that the DNA evidence is not enough to set Dillon free. He did not want to comment on specifics of possible motions.

"Responses to any factual or legal issues raised by the motion will be addressed by this office through responsive pleadings that might be filed with the Court, or through evidence and arguments that might be made in subsequent court proceedings," Holmes said in an e-mail to FLORIDA TODAY.

Since Dillon received the news July 28 that DNA tests came back in his favor, he said other inmates have been very supportive.

But after spending nearly three decades in prison, Dillon said he's tempering his excitement until the day he is released.

"I feel completely exhilarated to the point where I have to hold myself in check," he said. "But I see it, I really see it happening. I hold myself in tight, and I'm at peace with whatever happens. I've waited a long, long time for this."

Path to conviction

Dillon tells a detailed story of how he came to be convicted of the murder:

Then 21 years old, he was smoking a joint in a parked car near where Dvorak had been murdered five days earlier, Aug. 17, 1981, on Canova Beach.

When he told police officers he was showing his brother the crime scene, he became a suspect, even though he told police he had only read about it in the newspaper.

He bragged at a party the following night that police wanted to question him about the murder. When friends started teasing him about it, Dillon said he didn't care "because I didn't kill anyone."

A few days later, the friends told Dillon that police had been looking for him at the beach. Dillon, who was living at home with his parents, went to a pay phone and called them. Police picked him up and started questioning him.

"I answered all the questions as best as I know how. Then I went home and told my parents what happened," he said. "That night, they came back to my house and said they had more questions."

Investigators enlisted a dog handler -- later proven a fraud -- and his German shepherd to identify Dillon from the scent found on the bloody T-shirt.

"They kept telling me to confess, that I would get manslaughter and could be out after 18 months," Dillon said. "I said: 'That's fine and dandy, but I'm not confessing to something I didn't commit.' "

Dillon was charged with murder.

His girlfriend of two weeks, Donna Parrish, testified against him after sleeping with the lead investigator in the case. She recanted her testimony two weeks after Dillon was found guilty.

The judge did not grant Dillon's request for a new trial, and he was sentenced to life in prison.

Remaining evidence

Investigators picked the bloody, yellow T-shirt from a Dumpster after a witness said he had picked up a hitchhiker carrying the shirt the same night as the murder. The witness said he performed oral sex on the man, who left the shirt in the back of his truck.

But the description of the man was not a match for Dillon.

"The shirt was by far the state's most important piece of physical evidence," Miller said. "At trial, they mentioned it dozens of times. It supposedly linked Dillon to the crime. Now we know that it links someone else to the crime. Had the jury known this, they certainly would have acquitted."

Other evidence collected from the murder scene -- items that DNA testing would have provided conclusive proof one way or another -- no longer can be located. The evidence included fingernail scrapings, cigarette butts and hair collected from the victim's hand.

Not able to see God

Dillon says his anger helped him survive those first few years in prison. He said terrible things happened to him behind bars, things he will not talk about.

"You go in very angry," he said. "I think my anger saved me -- that and my lawyer telling me not to do anything stupid. There were many times when I lost hope. There was really no dealing with it. You have two choices -- you can live or die. "

Later, he said, it was his faith in God that helped him endure.

"I wasn't seeing God at that time, but he was seeing me," he said, explaining that prisoners do not find God when locked up. "They already have God in them, but the world doesn't let them see it."

Dillon, who works out regularly, works in the prison's band room, issuing instruments to those who play. He has taught himself to play the guitar, bass and piano while incarcerated. He listens mainly to Christian rock music.

His favorite song is called "Find You Waiting," by Decemberadio.

"It says: 'I've heard the angels, I've seen the devil, I fought with the lion and walked through the fire,' " he said. "It goes on to say: 'You've been there for me when times were rough, and now I'm on my knees.' It just glorifies to me what I've seen. I have seen Satan and I have listened to the angels, and I'm coming out of it, I'm coming out."

As far as Dillon is concerned, the only way he will leave the walls and razor wire of Hardee Correctional Institution is if he's exonerated or found not guilty at a new trial.

"I'm not taking any kind of deal for anything," he said. "If they want to do another trial, then I just want them to use the truth. I just want to make sure there is no more fabricated evidence. We know how they play."

Contact Torres at 242-3649 or


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