The video of William Dillon, 52, singing the national anthem for the Tampa Bay Rays swept the Internet. He was invited to do the opening honors, including throwing the first pitch, because, of course, he could sing. But in doing so, he delivered another powerful message. As is often the case, Dillon, who spent more than 27 years in prison for a crime he did not commit, refuses to let bitterness ruin his newfound freedom. He accepted the invitation to sing about the land of the free and the home of the brave because his love of country—and the promise of America—has never wavered.
“Words cannot even explain how I feel,” he said just prior to singing (see Tampa Bay Times report and video). “It is so emotional and so deep-ingrained in my heart and soul. ‘Cause I am a true patriot. Regardless of what happened, I firmly believe in America and I firmly believe in who we are as a people.”
The Florida Innocence Project assisted Dillon in proving his innocence through DNA. The state’s theory was built on a yellow t-shirt linked to the crime scene and to Dillon. However, nearly three decades later, DNA testing excluded Dillon and linked to unknown person(s). After his release from prison, the State determined it would not retry Dillon.
Dillon’s conviction story is all too familiar in the United States and around the world, and its lessons should no longer escape us. Wrongful conviction usually occurs when a combination of unreliable evidence and testimony provides convincing proof of guilt, especially in the judgment of jurors untrained in the reliability of various kinds of evidence. Dillon’s case could serve as a primer on the threat to justice posed by the unlikely but too frequent convergence of bogus evidence.
He was arrested when he was 21 for the murder of James Dvorak whose body was discovered in a wooded area near Canova Beach, Florida. According to the Florida Innocence Project’s account, Dillon was convicted primarily with four pieces of evidence:
1. Unreliable eyewitness testimony, #1: A female acquaintance who was a principle witness recanted shortly following the trial after giving eyewitness testimony supporting the State’s crime theory, although she did not see the crime. She admitted that she felt pressured by the Sherriff’s and State Attorney’s Office and threatened with 25 years in prison. The Florida Innocence Project cited a report in Florida Today newspaper that the witness had sex with the lead investigator, who was subsequently suspended and resigned.
2. Unreliable expert forensic testimony: Dog scent testimony was provided by a forensic expert who was later discredited.
3. Unreliable snitch evidence: Dale Chapman testified that Dillon had confessed to him in jail and acted out the crime. There were no other witnesses to this alleged confession and the Innocence Project noted that the State dropped pending charges against Chapman for the rape of a sixteen-year-old girl.
4. Unreliable eyewitness testimony #2: John Parker, legally blind in one eye, gave eyewitness testimony supporting the crime theory although he did not see the crime. Even at trial he was unsure if Dillon was the man he had identified.
In retrospect it seems inconceivable that William Dillon could have been convicted on this testimony. It also seems incomprehensible that numerous flaws and misdeeds of humanity—dishonesty, greed, lust, intimidation, arrogance, callousness—could come together simultaneously against an innocent person. Standing alone, none of these testimonies was very credible, but, together, they convicted an innocent man.
In about half of the cases of proven wrongful convictions, misconduct on the part of police or sheriff officers or the prosecutor contributed. Due to the credibility Americans generally give officers of the State, testimony resulting from this kind of misconduct is often very persuasive and therefore, when misused, an egregious abuse of power.
Assuming these reported facts of Dillon’s conviction are accurate, one witness lied under the sheriff’s and state attorney’s pressure and threat of long incarceration. Intimidating a person to falsely testify is misconduct.
The use of evidence such as dog scent “testimony” should be highly suspect to jurors. Police officers’ and prosecutors’ knowing use of an unreliable forensic expert or unreliable science is misconduct.
A police officer’s engagement in sexual activity with a key witness is misconduct.
Presumably William Dillon recognizes that a perfect storm of human error—some malicious, some opportunistic, some simply pathetic—conspired with the outcome of a horrible miscarriage of justice. He recognizes that it wasn’t America that failed him, but individuals who fell short of any decent standard of ethics. In fact, it is the promise of America—one nation under God with liberty and justice for all—deeply ingrained in Dillon’s soul that prompted his singing of our national anthem. That promise should also drive every responsible citizen to demand better from our public officials, to require best practices in criminal justice, and to expect not just convictions but true justice.