The long wait for justice: freed after 27 years in prison, Dillon still believes in the system.
"I'm very sorry for what's happened," Roger Dale Chapman, a mechanic from Bonifay, testified, 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.
Dillon--sentenced to life in prison for first-degree murder at age 21 and now a 50-year-old man who said he still believes justice will prevail--accepted Chapman's apology.
"I know you were used," Dillon told Chapman. "I know they pressured you."
It was the first time the two men had seen each other since the 1981 trial that Sandy D'Alemberte, Dillon's pro bono lawyer working with the Innocence Project of Florida, describes 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.
Finally, in 2008, the key that opened the prison door was DNA evidence tested from a yellow "Surf It" T-shirt worn by the killer and held in safekeeping for decades by the court clerk. A forensic scientist gave her expert opinion about the shirt splattered with blood that matched the victim, James Dvorak, found naked and beaten to death on Canova Beach. Trace evidence of sweat and skin showed at least two individuals wore the shirt--but "very likely" not Dillon, the scientist testified.
The setting was a claims hearing in Tallahassee on November 2, lasting nearly four hours before Administrative Law Judge Bram Canter, acting as the Senate's special master on SB 22, a claims bill to compensate Dillon, sponsored by Senate President-designate Mike Haridopolos, R-Melbourne, and the entire Brevard County delegation.
Also presiding was Tom Thomas, a staff attorney appointed by the Speaker of the House, on claims bill HB 161, sponsored by Rep. John Legg, R-Port Richey.
"I felt it was my moral obligation to file a bill to compensate Mr. Dillon--who waited 27 years, the longest number of years in prison to be exonerated--and to bring to light that government does make mistakes, and when we do to fess up and pay restitution," Legg said. "I think it's highly probable he will get compensation. The number of the amount itself is in debate."
After the hearing, D'Alemberte said, "I was delighted to see the person who accused Bill of confessing come forward for the first time today and to admit that he was coerced and threatened by the state. It just shows you the kind of bad activity on the part of law enforcement, and it is something we ought not tolerate in this society.
"I don't think that's true of most law enforcement officers. I don't think it's true of most prosecutors. But here we had a period of time in which prosecutors and law enforcement people went beyond the bounds of propriety, in my judgment."
As Chapman described from the witness stand, he was arrested on a charge of aggravated sexual assault and landed in the Brevard County Jail with Dillon in 1981.
Chapman was released from the Liberty Work Camp on October 22, serving time for methamphetamine possession. He agreed to talk to the Innocence Project investigator on October 30. Chapman said the 1981 rape charge was eventually dismissed when medical evidence ruled him out--but not before he was coerced by Brevard County Sheriff's Detective Thom Fair to railroad Dillon.
"A detective pulled me out of the bull pen and took me down to a private waiting area. He said he wanted me to go back up and get information on Bill Dillon, that he wanted to know everything that happened about the murder," Chapman testified. "I told Fair the next time he came to see me, I said, 'Look, [Dillon] said he didn't do it.' And Fair said, 'This is what you're going to say. You're going to say this, or you are going back to prison.'"
Chapman testified that Fair and "another guy sat side-by-side. He'd ask questions and the other guy would write on a piece of paper and hold the piece of paper up with the answers." Chapman said he then recited aloud those answers as a tape recorder rolled.
At the courthouse before the trial, Chapman said Fair presented a transcript of those statements and told him and another key witness to stick to their stories.
Dillon shook Chapman's hand and told reporters: "I forgive him because I know that he was perplexed, and I know he was pushed into a situation where it was easy to throw my life away."
Within an hour of arriving at prison--where he would spend more than half his life--Dillon tearfully testified, he was jumped by five guys and sexually assaulted at knifepoint.
For his protection, Dillon was placed in confinement, but he could still hear about 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.
D'Alemberte handed the special masters a document about Dillon's mental health records, and Dillon testified: "My head is all mixed up. Mentally, I keep dropping back and forth with it."
Now, Dillon works for a DNA company, giving speeches extolling the virtues of DNA evidence. He also gives speeches to young lawyers and public defenders.
"I still believe in the justice system," Dillon said. "I just feel that certain individuals misuse it. And when they are in a position of power, they take kids who don't know what they're doing, and they need a public sentiment to say, 'OK, we got a killer off the streets.' In reality, they've had a killer walking around the streets for more than 27 years...."
The day after Chapman's testimony, Brevard County Sheriff Jack Parker reopened the 1981 murder case, saying he wants to determine the truth.
Dillon tells lawyers: "I believe law enforcement works when it is used in the right method. But I also am explaining to them the other side of the coin: Don't be misled by senior officials and people who know this business, but need to make the quota, or need to make a conviction of some kind. I tell them, what happened to me is possible."
A call to 18th Circuit State Attorney Norm Wolfinger was returned by his assistant who provided a September 14 letter Wolfinger wrote to the Senate special master. Wolfinger wrote he is "supportive of the compensation process for individuals who have in fact been exonerated by compelling evidence of innocence." But Wolfinger does not call Dillon innocent. He said he did not retry him because nine witnesses have died and another suffers medical issues and can't testify.
"It should be made clear to the Legislature that the court did not make a finding that DNA testing of skin cells on the yellow T-shirt 'exonerated' Mr. Dillon," Wolfinger wrote. "Whether or not Mr. Dillon can meet his burden of proof to the satisfaction of the Legislature is the policy decision to be made in regard to Senate Bill 22."
At the hearing, Thomas, the House special master, said he hasn't made up his mind about the burden of proof Dillon must scale.
"The state has decided not to retry Mr. Dillon. If they did, he would have a presumption of innocence. They would have to prove he was guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Here, I think, you have to prove innocence," Thomas told D'Alemberte.
Judge Canter discussed the "clear and convincing" proof of innocence required in the Victims of Wrongful Incarceration Act recently passed by the Legislature. However, that route to award $50,000 for each year spent wrongfully in prison requires "clean hands," and, therefore, is not available to Dillon.
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.
"You know, what I did at 19 was foolishness, true enough. But I was put in prison for 27 years when I wasn't supposed to be in prison. So I feel like I should be compensated. Because that's all they can give me back. They can't give me my life back," Dillon said.
D'Alemberte also represented Wilton Dedge, who was wrongfully incarcerated for a rape he did not commit and prosecuted in Brevard County using the same "charlatan dog handler" and jailhouse snitch testimony. After several years of the claims process, in 2006 the Legislature awarded Dedge $2 million for 22 years of wrongful incarceration. Therefore, D'Alemberte said, it would be fair for Dillon to receive $2.4 million for 27 years wrongfully incarcerated.
D'Alemberte said he thought they received a fair hearing before special masters familiar with the record. And D'Alemberte said he believes he did meet the clear and convincing standard proving Dillon's innocence.
"It's a heavy, heavy burden to carry," D'Alemberte said. "I believe we carried it."
By Jan Pudlow