Sunday, December 27, 2009

A lifetime lost: William Dillon's 27-year fight for freedom


Eight months away from his 50th birthday, William Dillon took a deep breath, a free man for the first time since he was 21.

Outside the Brevard County Detention Center, he saw his mother and adopted father, brothers and sister. They hugged and pushed forward nieces and nephews he had never met. He shook hands with other strangers.

Then he saw Wilton Dedge, who also spent more than two decades in prison before DNA testing overturned his conviction.

They embraced, kindred spirits brought together by the nightmare of wrongful incarceration and the elation of freedom because of advances in technology.

"Now I know this is magical," Dillon said on Nov. 14, 2008, the day of his release and less than a month before prosecutors dropped all charges against him in the 1981 beating death of James Dvorak at Canova Beach.

Dillon rehearsed that moment of freedom many times in his head, he said later, after agreeing to work with FLORIDA TODAY on this special report and a video documentary about his experience during and after his time in prison.

He said the lightning-quick reality of release was almost too much.

"I don't think anyone can imagine coming out of prison after 27 years and seeing freedom," he said. "It's like having a death sentence of cancer and God just healing you right in that moment.

"It's got to be the same thing. In reality, I was dead, and he brought me right back to life."

That day, Dillon held on to family for support as he walked toward freedom. A barricade of television cameras and microphones, photographers and reporters stopped him.

They asked about bitterness and animosity over the life sentence he received after his conviction in Dvorak's death -- a conviction set aside by DNA evidence that showed he had no connection to a shirt prosecutors said was worn by the killer.

"I settled that anger in my heart about 12 years ago. God settled it in me," he said slowly. "If I didn't make that choice, I don't think I would be here right now.

"And this is something that I thought about and dreamed about for years and years and years."

Horrors begin

On March 18, 1982, Dillon stepped from a van and looked out on "The Rock," Florida's oldest state prison. He said his heart was full of hate as he began his sentence for Dvorak's death.

He ignored a lieutenant who encouraged him to first go into protective custody.

"They are not right in there," the officer warned Dillon about inmates in the "general population." "They are animals, and they will eat you alive."

The other seven prisoners transported with Dillon accepted the offer, but he was led to his permanent cell.

He described "madness" all around -- yells and taunts, foul odors. No one seemed to be in charge, and he was afraid.

Moments later, five men barged into Dillon's cell. Three held him down, while two beat and raped him.

"I tried to battle as best as I could, but really, it was a no-win situation for me," Dillon said.

A prison guard found him bleeding from the face and buttocks. Other guards were called in.

"What happened? Who did this to you?" they asked him.

"I don't know who. I don't know why," he answered, believing his silence would make him safer.

In that moment, Dillon said, he lost who he was and became someone else.

"I'm falling deeper into a mental state, so now my life value, I feel, is worthless," he said of how he felt that day. "I want to go to sleep, and I don't want to wake up."

The lieutenant came into the cell and shook his head, Dillon recounted. "I told you so," the man said.

Reality sets in

The rapes and torments continued. On Christmas Day 1982, Dillon said, he started to feel the full weight of his despair.

"That Christmas right there was . . . the one that told me that I would never be able to share anything again with my family," he recalled. "No emotion, no family hugs, no Christmas, no celebrations, no cheer."

Visits from family eventually slowed down. When they did visit or talk on the phone, Dillon could see the questions in their eyes and hear it in their voices.

"Maybe you did it, but you didn't know it," they said. "Maybe you were drunk or on drugs."

Dillon first drew attention from investigators when police found him smoking marijuana in his brother's car near the murder scene at Canova Beach. It was only a few days after Dvorak's body was found.

"I never did anything in my life that I didn't know I did," he told his family, trying to understand how his wild lifestyle had left the door open for their hesitation. "I was going to bars and partying. I was having a good time."

Dillon had graduated from high school in North Dakota before moving to Florida. He served in the Army, then worked on and off in construction.

"It wasn't the kind of lifestyle my parents wanted for me," he said.

When Dillon was transferred to other prisons, he carried the reputation of a rape victim who would not report attacks.

He was filled with rage but said he held on to "secret hope" that sustained him through the years: "When you go to sleep at night, you hope that something will happen in your case and that tomorrow will bring some paperwork that says we made a mistake or that the judge is going to retry you or the lawyer is working on newly discovered evidence.

"Or the fact that whoever actually did the crime will confess to it. That seems almost laughable in a sense, but you'd be surprised how strong that is within you."

The life sentence

Over the years, Dillon worked a variety of prison jobs. The tiny paychecks -- he made 15 cents an hour -- or a letter from home gave him rare moments of happiness.

Slowly, he realized that his adopted father, Joe Dillon -- his dad since the age of 1 -- was the only person writing to encourage him. Joe also was depositing small sums of money in his prison account for him to buy snacks, sodas and cigarettes.

"He began to show me more and more the compassion of a man who was trying to love his son," said Dillon, adding that he started to feel shame for never loving Joe the way he could have. For causing trouble and making life harder for the man who would not give up on him.

Joe said his mission was to keep his son's spirits from falling too low. In addition to money and letters, there were periodic phone calls from Joe and Dillon's mother, Amy.

"We'd try to have a little bit of happiness in the conversations on the telephone, something good instead of just something bad whenever we spoke to him," Joe said. "I knew he should have been a free man."

Time stands still

During Dillon's second decade in Florida prisons, he started picking fights, thinking fury was key to his survival.

"I was on a one-way ticket to straight anger and frustration and trying to make them kill me," Dillon said. "I never said it out loud, but I wanted them to kill me."

The rage subsided whenever his younger brother, also named Joe, visited.

"Joe used to come and see me, and I just enjoyed the love and the talks and the camaraderie," Dillon said. "I enjoyed it. But I saw the blossom in my brother that made me want to look and see what it was."

After a visit by the "praise and worship band" from Joe's church, Dillon said he started to believe there might be another path besides anger. He started asking Joe to explain certain Scriptures. He started to feel a sense of peace.

"One day, I was sitting in my cell, and the shadows had come down on the room," he recalled. "I started to hear something start saying it was time. I was sitting there and was amazed.

"I couldn't understand it. Was it in my head? From that moment on, I started going to church, and I started to listen to what was being said. I began to comprehend the act of faith. I let faith seep into me. I let belief seep into me.

"And with belief and faith there together, God freed me."

Last chance

It was summer 2006 when details of the Dedge case started to reach Dillon, then serving his 25th year. It was more than two years after Dedge, also from Brevard, was cleared of rape through DNA testing and released after 22 years in prison.

Dillon said he grew excited as he learned of similarities to his case: testimony from the same expert witness who later was discredited, the use of a jailhouse informant and unreliable witnesses.

Dillon wrote letters to law school professors seeking help, as well as to the Innocence Project in New York. He wasn't certain there was evidence left from his case that could be tested for DNA.

"Professor, please excuse me for my rude interruption into your life," one letter began. "My name is William Dillon, and I have been imprisoned since 1981 for a crime I had nothing at all to do with. . . . I need someone to take an interest in this case. I'm not wasting your time."

He got no response.

Facing a statutory time limit to file a motion for DNA testing, Dillon wrote his own motion, with the help of other inmates and the prison library.

"I prayed that God would show me how to file the motion," he said. It took him seven days to compose.

On June 6, 2006, Dillon mailed it to the Brevard County Clerk of the Court.

Unbelievable news

Dillon was shocked in October 2006 when a Brevard circuit judge ordered the state to respond to his petition for DNA testing of evidence.

The same prosecutor's office that sent him to prison called the motion "frivolous" and vowed to fight.

Dillon was taken to Brevard for a hearing.

"I don't even know that there is any evidence," Dillon said. "I'm just filing this motion, hoping that there is."

Assistant Public Defender Mike Pirolo was assigned to the case. Pirolo soon learned that the Innocence Project -- a national litigation and public policy organization that, according to its Web site, is "dedicated to exonerating wrongfully convicted people through DNA testing and reforming the criminal justice system" -- wanted to help.

The Innocence Project had been instrumental in the exoneration of Dedge.

Pirolo said he knows many of his clients are guilty. But he felt different after meeting Dillon.

"It didn't feel like (Dillon) was trying to make things up," said Pirolo, who was only 2-years-old when Dillon was first arrested. "It was just one of those rare occasions when I just looked at a guy and instantly said, 'I believe him,' right from Day 1."

Penning a song

Months of waiting and hearings followed.

Music had become Dillon's escape. He taught himself to play the guitar, getting pointers from other inmates.

In June 2008, he wrote a song to capture what he'd been through. It is an angry yet soulful country ballad; he strums and sings in a smooth, sorrowful voice:

Black robes and lawyers, justice served it will be done.

Black robes and lawyers, Lady Justice lost her one.

I was taken by the lords of justice, cast away as a stone.

Left to rot in their dungeons for the murder of a man I don't know.

You committed a crime, you'll pay for that, don't you know that it's a fact.

A fact you know well, your freedom's shamed.

In the prison yard, a stone bares your name, bares your name.

One month later, he learned that the DNA test might open the prison gates for him -- nearly two years after a judge granted his motion for the testing. His lawyers told him the results showed he couldn't have worn the T-shirt linked to the crime.

"I feel completely exhilarated to the point where I have to hold myself in check," he said in a prison interview with FLORIDA TODAY before the state ordered his release in November 2008. "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."

Contact Torres at 242-3649 or


Johnny Utah said...

i saw mr. dillon speak in IRSC this fall. It was fascinating and infuriating. I hope he can get compensation from the State. He has a pill possession prior that makes him ineligible for the fund

Robert said...

That is absolutely insane! They took 27 years of his life away from him and will not compensate him for something he did almost 30 years ago which he got probation and a 150 dollar fine for. Bullshit!!! You people who railroaded this guy should be ashamed. Governor Christ needs to step in and make sure he gets compensation for 27 years lost. no money could really compensate for that but the state of Florida should do something.

Anonymous said...

I just saw Mr. Dillon's story on ID cable and I agree, the majority of his life was spent in jail for something he did not do and then to say he cannot be compensated? I can only say that he will be compensated in heaven even if he can't be here on earth. The law in Florida is a joke! Mr. Dillon, please continue to put your faith in God.

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