When the the Star Spangled Banner is sung at Tropicana Field before the Rays take on the Cleveland Indians tonight, you might want to look more closely at the singer. William Dillon, 52, was released from prison to make the gig after serving 27 years for a murder that he did not commit. His story is not simply an inspiring account of one man’s struggle to prove his innocence, but illustrative of the problems in our criminal justice system.
Dillon was a talented baseball player being looked at for the major leagues when he was arrested for the murder. Police were investigating the beating death of James Dvorak on the morning of August 17, 1981. He had been beaten to death and left in a wooded area. Police had taped off the scene and were interviewing witnesses when Dillon approached an officer to ask about the crime. He was later brought in for multiple interrogations under the assumption that he must have known something about the crime (and given the lack of any other witnesses or suspects). The trial relied on an admitted perjurer and what the ACLU describes as “a fraudulent dog scent expert.” Then there was the sight-imparied eyewitness and jailhouse snitch. A key witness, Donna Parrish, was Dillon’s sexual partner and gave conflicting and at points incoherent testimony. She later recanted her testimony and said that she had been pressured by the Sheriff’s Office and the State Attorney’s Office and threatened with 25 years in prison.
DNA evidence was never tested and, as in many such cases, prosecutors fought his every effort to test the evidence and seek later reviews of the evidence. Prosecutors relied on a jailhouse snitch. These snitches are notoriously unreliable but jurors often accept their testimony. These snitches look for anyone to testify against to cut a deal with prosecutors and there are many cases where they simply made up accounts to please prosecutors. Nevertheless, some prosecutors routinely use them — mining prison yards for instant witnesses. Thus Dillon’s case had all of the troubling elements of abusive criminal cases: lack of direct evidence, failure to test DNA evidence, reliance on snitch testimony and an eye-witness id. Moreover, there has been no discipline of prosecutors or police responsible for these failures. There has not even been an inquiry into allegations that prosecutors threatened and coerced false testimony from witnesses. Once again, a state pays out over one million dollars and destroys a man’s life, but there is no serious inquiry into the wrongdoing of either investigators or prosecutors in the case.
It was the Innocence Project of Florida – not the police or the prosecutors — that sought to test sweat on a bloody T-shirt — the key piece of evidence at trial. It belonged to another man. The jailhouse snitch later recanted his testimony against Dillon.
While in jail, Dillon turned to music and became a popular country singer in the prison. He is now seeking a singing career. He has written songs with cathartic themes and titles like “Black Robes and Lawyers” and “Passing Time” and “Only Freedom Matters” and “Lost in Time.”
Here is an interview with Dillon: