By Jan Pudlow
When the votes were tallied in the Florida House — 107 to 5 — to compensate DNA exoneree William Dillon $1.35 million for serving 27 years for a murder he did not commit, he watched from the gallery, bent over, and sobbed.
With his girlfriend Ellen Moscovitz on one side and his pro bono lawyer Sandy D’Alemberte on the other, Dillon shed tears of relief that — finally, finally — people believe him when he insists he was not the killer.
“This whole process has been about being believed,” 52-year-old Dillon said three days after the critical February 24 vote that sent the compensation bill to the Senate for final passage on March 1, with a 38-1 vote.
“Since Day One, since 1981, it’s been about being believed. I don’t have the most perfect track record, but I did not commit murder. It was very emotional. The vote meant to me: ‘We believe in you, and we feel something seriously wrong happened.’ That is what I have been screaming all along,” Dillon said.
At a bill-signing ceremony March 1, Gov. Rick Scott apologized on behalf of the state of Florida, and told Dillon: “What I really appreciate, from sitting down with you, is the fact that you have such a positive attitude, and that you are doing something important with your life.”
House Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, told Dillon: “You showed incredible courage and class, probably better than I would have in the same circumstances.”
Dillon responded: “For them to say sorry for other people, it means the whole world. For the govenor of the state of Florida to say sorry to me means everything. It means the whole check.”
Dillon found a powerful friend in Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Melbourne, who watched in dismay last year as compensating the man from Brevard County received unanimous Senate support but died in messages in the 2011 session’s final chaotic hours.
This time around, Haridopolos gave SB 2 a head start, expediting the process to hear the bill on the Senate floor in January.
Because the House inserted a single sentence — noting that the Brevard County sheriff’s office has formally excluded Dillon as a suspect in the 1981 murder of James Dvorak — the bill was sent back to the Senate for final approval.
“Everyone in this room knows that my father was a special agent in the FBI. He not only taught me about the idea of justice, he showed me justice by what he did every day when he went off to work,” Haridopolos told the Senate March 1. “And when this issue was brought to my attention, a lot of people were surprised that a person like myself might take on a bill like this. But I had some good friends. One is a person in Brevard County you all know, [pro bono lobbyist] Guy Spearman, and Sandy D’Alemberte, former president of Florida State, brought this issue to me. I studied it. The facts were very clear, in my opinion.
“We wanted to champion the idea that William Dillon could be made — not whole — but we could restore justice.”
Though Sen. Steve Oelrich, R-Gainesville, a former Alachua County sheriff, cast the lone “nay” vote, no one spoke against compensating Dillon, who was thanked for his patience.
That was in sharp contrast to the spirited floor debate in the House on CS/CS HB 141, filed by Rep. Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island.Dillon said the debate that spanned about 10 minutes “felt like a roller-coaster ride.”
“One guy was using information used to convict me at my trial, about bragging about beating homosexuals,” Dillon said.
“That was the first thing out of his mouth. That was the state trying to make me look like the killer of a gay man. I was shocked. It was like going from extremely angry to feeling that the situation had resolved itself.”
Dillon referred to comments made by Rep. John Tobia, R-Melbourne, who recounted details published in Florida Today.
“The recipient bragged and boasted about beating and robbing gay men in the same area where the murder took place,” Tobia said.
“The benefactor lied to police about his alibi. This benefactor had been convicted of drunk driving. This benefactor, the reason he is not immediately compensated, is because there was a felony conviction of a controlled substance. He was discharged from the U.S. Army for possessing stolen property. I believe the benefactor’s character does not warrant special consideration. So before you vote, ask yourself if offering more than $1 million is wise during these tough economic times, or, quite frankly, any economic times.”
But House Speaker-designate Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, said, “I am only 32 years old. The thought of me living my entire life span in prison for a crime I did not commit is beyond my comprehension. It should be beyond your comprehension. There is no dollar amount that will give this man his 27 years back.
“Mr. Dillon may have made mistakes in his life, as was pointed out. So have I. So has every person in here. We all live in glass houses. I have done a lot of things in my life that I’m not proud of. And you probably have, too. But I can be proud of voting for this bill today.”
Mistakes were made in the investigation of the 1981 murder at Canova Beach. A jailhouse snitch finally came forward in 2009 to say a detective had coached him to lie to save his own skin. D’Alemberte, working with the Innocence Project of Florida, described the case as filled with lies, bogus evidence from a “charlatan” dog handler, inconsistent and recanted testimony from a witness having sexual relations with the sheriff’s lead investigator, eye-witness identification that didn’t match Dillon, an ignored alibi, and prosecutorial misconduct.
The key that opened the prison door in 2008 was DNA evidence tested from a yellow “Surf It” T-shirt worn by the real killer.
The day after the jailhouse snitch recanted, Brevard County Sheriff Jack Parker reopened the case, focusing on other suspects. Last year, Gov. Scott appointed Seventh Circuit State Attorney R.J. Larizza to review Parker’s investigation. Because it is still an active investigation, Larizza declined to comment.
“Let’s be clear that 30 years ago people who resided in the great county of Brevard committed an atrocity,” Rep. Ritch Workman, R-Melbourne, said on the floor. “They lied. They cheated. They stole. They did whatever they could to get a quick conviction. And what that quick conviction did was give the residents of Brevard County some peace, because a suspected murderer was behind bars.”
Pointing to Dillon, Workman continued: “What else it did was put that guy in prison for 27 years, where he went through untold horrors, time and time again, at the hands of rapists and killers and horrible people. One of the things we must do as a society is take a break from lowering taxes. . . and take a moment to give justice to a man who deserves it.”
Dillon, who now lives in Chapel Hill, N.C., spends his days practicing his guitar and vocals, after cutting his first 12-song CD called, “Black Robes and Lawyers,” with some of the lyrics written on toilet paper in his prison cell.
He gave the CD to Gov. Scott, who said, “I haven’t had a chance to listen to it, but I hear you are a lot better than Johnny Cash.”
Dillon said he’s busy working on his second CD.
“It’s a totally different realm. The tone will be upbeat. I always said I would write the world’s great love song.”
Finally, his long wait for justice is over.
“I am glad to seal the door on this,” Dillon said. “Not just the compensation. It’s the 27 and a half years in prison I am sealing up. I am moving on.
“But I am still motivated by injustice. And whenever I see it, I will fight it.”