Compensation bill for DNA exoneree Bill Dillon dies in session’s last hours
By Jan Pudlow
“Politics got in the way today, and I’m embarrassed,” an emotional Senate President Mike Haridopolos told his chamber in the wee hours on the legislative session’s last day.
One of the big losers was William Dillon, who spent 27 years in prison for a Brevard County murder he did not commit. Haridopolos, R-Melbourne, had championed Dillon’s claims bill (SB 46) to compensate him $810,000, and the Senate had unanimously voted “yes” on May 4.
“Today’s unanimous vote by the Senate sends a loud message that when we as a state make a mistake, we must pay for it,” Haridopolos said after the vote.
But compensation for 51-year-old Dillon fizzled in the House, where it died in messages in the early morning of May 7.
“It was an extremely emotional roller-coaster ride,” Dillon said from his home in North Carolina. “I was really proud and appreciate all that Mike Haridopolos and all the Senate did. It was a great feeling; the vote was 39 to nothing. It made me feel that they do recognize I’m not an obscure piece of dust here.”
But over in the House, compensating Dillon was brushed away as the clocked ticked toward sine die.
Rep. Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, who sponsored HB 23 to compensate Dillon, later explained the House’s reluctance to pass the claims bill. “Unfortunately, this is still an open case, and the House didn’t feel it would be prudent to pass HB 23 until the case is closed,” Crisafulli said.
“I believe that this case will be closed in the coming months, and I am hopeful that Mr. Dillon will receive compensation for his wrongful incarceration. I don’t believe that any amount of money can truly compensate him for his 27 years in prison, but I believe that upon closure of this case, the Legislature will find him worthy of just compensation.”
Sheriff’s New Investigation Complete
What keeps the case open is a chain of events stemming from a November 2, 2009, claims hearing in Tallahassee, when Administrative Law Judge Bram Center, acting as the Senate’s special master, heard testimony and argument for four hours. At that hearing, Roger Dale Chapman, a mechanic from Bonifay, admitted he had lied to a jury in Dillon’s murder trial to save his own skin.
The jailhouse snitch wiped away tears and apologized to Dillon, saying, “I’m very sorry for what’s happened,” after detailing how a detective removed him from the bull pen cell of the Brevard County Jail and told him, “Dale, I hold your freedom in my hand,” and then coached him to testify that Dillon had confessed, even though he had maintained his innocence.
The day after Chapman’s testimony, Brevard County Sheriff Jack Parker reopened the 1981 murder case, saying he wants to determine the truth.
On February 1, 2011, Judge Center issued a 12-page Special Master’s Final Report, concluding: “I recommend that Dillon be compensated for the 27 years he spent in prison, because there is no physical evidence linking Dillon to the victim or the crime scene, and Dillon probably would not have been found guilty with the credible evidence available to the prosecutors.”
On March 18, 2011, Gov. Rick Scott issued an executive order saying “the Brevard County Sheriff’s Office has completed its investigation and has asked the state attorney’s office to review their investigation regarding the murder of James Dvorak.”
The governor’s executive order said that 18th Circuit State Attorney Norm Wolfinger “has advised the governor that while he believes his office can fairly conduct this review, in order to avoid any appearance of conflict of interest or impropriety, he has voluntarily disqualified himself and has requested the executive assignment of another state attorney to conduct an independent review of the Brevard County Sheriff’s Office investigation regarding the murder of James Dvorak for the purpose of making any appropriate dispositional or charging decisions.”
The governor appointed Seventh Circuit State Attorney R.J. Larizza to handle the case.
Earlier, Wolfinger had written to Judge Center that he “is supportive of the compensation process for individuals who have in fact been exonerated by compelling evidence of innocence.” But Wolfinger did not call Dillon innocent, and said he did not retry him because nine witnesses have died, and another suffers medical issues and can’t testify.
Believers in Dillon’s Innocence
But there is no doubt that Dillon is innocent, exonerated by DNA evidence three years ago, according to his pro bono lawyer, Sandy D’Alemberte, and Seth Miller, executive director of the Innocence Project of Florida. They describe Dillon’s 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, a jailhouse snitch who recanted, eyewitness identification that didn’t match Dillon, an ignored alibi, and prosecutorial misconduct.
“What we know from the governor’s executive order is an investigation is complete. We can surmise the investigation did not implicate Bill Dillon. No one has made an official announcement about the end of the investigation or that it exonerates Bill. That cloud was over the claims process,” D’Alemberte said.
“I think that is one of the reasons we did not get movement out of the House. I think Haridopolos was smart enough to figure it out. He moved forward and took the whole Senate with him. . . . I must say that Haridopolos could not have been better.”
To date, D’Alemberte says he has had no official announcement from the Brevard County Sheriff’s Office clearing Dillon.
“But the very fact that Haridopolos would go forward signals to me that the sheriff wouldn’t let Haridopolos stick his neck out. There is no problem with Bill (Dillon). Two confirming DNA tests were made. . . .My view is that the shadow cast by the investigation spooked some of the House members, and they did not have the enthusiasm for compensating Bill that Haridopolos did.”
Another claims bill for next session or a civil lawsuit are the only two routes for Dillon to be compensated. He does not qualify for the Victims of Wrongful Incarceration Act passed by the Legislature in 2008, affording the wrongfully incarcerated $50,000 per year. That’s because Dillon does not have the required “clean hands” or “clear and convincing” proof of innocence required under that law. When Dillon was 19, he was stopped for driving under the influence and had a marijuana joint and a Quaalude pill in his pocket. He pled guilty to the third-degree felony of possession of controlled substances, received probation, and paid a $175 fine.
This year’s claims bill that would have paid Dillon $810,000 figures out to $30,000 per year for his wrongful incarceration — much less than the $2 million Wilton Dedge received for 22 years he spent in prison for a rape he did not commit, also prosecuted in Brevard County using the same “charlatan” dog handler.
That $810,000, agree D’Alemberte and Miller, is not enough for what Dillon has been through. Within an hour of arriving at prison — where he would spend more than half his life — 22-year-old Dillon was jumped by five guys and sexually assaulted at knifepoint. He could hear 90 inmates taunting: “You belong to us now.” Dillon said he was so enraged he tore the porcelain sink and toilet off the cell wall, and contemplated suicide.
“We were real hopeful that the whole Legislature would pass a claims bill for Bill Dillon and pass it in an amount that measures equally with what other exonerees have gotten,” Miller said. “Just because the session is over doesn’t lessen the need to give Bill Dillon the compensation he deserves.”
Making Music While Waiting for Justice
While Dillon continues to wait for compensation, he has gotten positive media attention, most recently on the “Today” show on May 10.
His big break came in May 2010, when veteran music producer Jim Tullio happened to glance at his TV and catch “On the Case with Paula Zahn.” The case was about Dillon, and Tullio — a Grammy Award-winning composer, producer, and engineer who has recorded Mavis Staples, Levon Helm of The Band, Ritchie Havens and many others —reached out to contact Dillon and brought him to his sound studio in Evanston, Illinois.
“Jim Tullio called me out of the blue and said, ‘I’d like to give you an opportunity. You deserve a shot and you’ve been through a lot. You have a great voice and I want people to hear this.’ It was a pretty emotional moment,” Dillon recounted.
Dillon has a “CD master” of the songs he wrote in his prison cell, now available on iTunes. The lyrics for “Black Robes and Lawyers,” he said, were written on toilet paper, because he’d run out of his allotted two pieces of notebook paper while in prison.
Inspired by the tragedy of his life, here’s a snippet of Dillon’s lyrics: “Taken by the Lords of Justice, Cast away as a stone, Left to rot in their dungeons, For the murder of a man I didn’t know.”
Now, Dillon keeps songs in his heart, rather than bitterness, songs he describes as “yearning and sorrow,” music that he says has “really taken me to another level.”
“I see it really as a competition with myself,” he said of trying to keep anger and negativity out of his thoughts.
“You have to move on. If you continue to wallow in it, you will stay in it. If you live in anger, you will die in it.”
If he can sell his music, Dillon said, he’ll donate 10 percent to the Innocence Project of Florida. And he still waits for justice.
“Justice is not a monetary thing. Sure, I need money to live my life and not rely on other people,” Dillon said. “But justice for me is finding the real killer.”