Friday, January 2, 2009

William Dillon’s prison hell

William Dillon’s prison hell

Courts share blame for Satellite Beach man’s tragedy


Imagine being confined to a walk-in closet, your every move monitored 24 hours a day.

You’re living within a constant pall of depression, dodging gangs and assaults, no freedom of when, where or what you will eat, no sense of caring from anyone, stripped of your dignity, your identity reduced to a number, no future, trapped within a life that has no life — for 27 years.

Worse yet, imagine if you were innocent of the crime.

It’s unimaginable. But it happens.

Such is the case of Satellite Beach resident William Dillon, who went to prison for murder at the age of 22 and is now released as innocent at the age of 49.

Key evidence for his conviction was a discarded shirt stained with the victim’s blood that was mistakenly attributed to Dillon. DNA testing proved he hadn’t worn that shirt, though another unknown person did.

The case was replete with other questionable issues, including a homicide investigator’s affair with Dillon’s former girlfriend. Her damaging testimony against Dillon was later recanted, but too late. A dog handler who testified against Dillon was later discredited, and a jailhouse snitch was known to have given inaccurate information.

But Dillon stayed in prison anyway.

Dillon is the 223rd inmate released from American prisons since the inception of DNA forensics, 17 of those were released from death row.

Why isn’t anyone asking, “What took so long?”

Bogged-down appellate courts are generally more interested in court procedure and attorney conduct when reviewing cases, and less concerned with the viability or truth of evidence. Yet, an inmate who can show that witnesses were not truthful and evidence was flawed, or that DNA may prove him innocent, must wait up to 27 years for an opportunity to exculpate himself.

There’s something wrong with that.

In Dillon’s case, a petition was finally filed for DNA testing in October 2006, yet it took two more years of his life waiting for the legal eagles to duke it out. If prosecutors are confident they convicted the right man, there should be no objection to DNA testing.

In truth, it’s unlikely that every one of those 223 who have been released based on DNA testing were actually innocent. But most are. In 89 of those cases, the true perpetrator ultimately was identified and arrested.

I’ve learned through my own experience in criminal justice that DNA is not always the end-all. Sometimes, additional information exists that still points to guilt. Retrying someone for a crime that happened decades earlier is nearly impossible, as witnesses disappear and evidence often is lost.

However, in cases where the veracity of several witnesses is seriously in question and there is any chance that a human being is wrongfully languishing behind bars, the state should not be stonewalling efforts to seek out justice. In the name of humanity, they should be part of the truth-seeking effort.

Unfortunately, the courts have become an arena of legal combat that ignore the signs above the bench: “We Who Labor Here Seek Only Truth.”

Dillon may eventually win monetary compensation from the state. But it can never give back 27 years from the prime of his life.

Frank is a writer and retired Miami police detective who lives in Melbourne.

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