William Michael Dillon's voice is reminiscent of Johnny Cash. It's deep, throaty and textured. It sounds like the voice of someone who has led a complex life.
But when it comes to performing in jail, not even Cash, the man who immortalized Folsom Prison Blues, can claim to be Dillon's peer. Dillon was wrongly incarcerated for murder in several Florida prisons for 27 years, until 2008.
Looking back, Dillon says the worst part of living behind bars was the feeling that he would have to suffer a lifetime of undeserved punishment without anyone to comfort him. He remembers thinking, "This is my life from here on out. I can't prove anything."
Late one night, in a moment of despair, he picked up a roll of toilet paper and started to write songs.
"The writing really started to give me an outlet," he said. "To say, 'I'm going to document this, but nobody's going to hear it, but it's going to make me feel better.' "
Next month, he's releasing an independently produced album that includes four songs he wrote in his cell. The title track, Black Robes and Lawyers, is an indictment of the American criminal justice system that Dillon developed throughout his sentence. In it, Dillon pleas, "Let me reach that gate!"
Before Dillon went to prison in 1981, he was a carefree 22-year-old. He said he worked as a bowling alley mechanic and occasional construction worker, but a Florida Senate report about his exoneration calls him a "beach bum." Broke, the report says, Dillon "spent his days and nights sleeping on the beach, in cars, or at the apartments of acquaintances or strangers, smoking marijuana, and 'bumming' cigarettes, drinks, meals, rides and clothes."
One summer night, Dillon went to the Pelican Bar on Route A1A, near Melbourne. That same night, James Dvorak was beaten to death on Canova Beach, across the road from the bar. Eight days later, on Aug. 26, 1981, Dillon was arrested and charged with the murder.
Dillon said he did not do it, that he was never at the beach. "I knew they were wrong, and I knew they were going to find out they were wrong." He was ultimately convicted of murder and sentenced to life.
The weight of paying for another's crime made Dillon angry. At first, he turned to violence for catharsis. "My first disciplinary report in prison was destruction of the whole cell," he said. "I tore the porcelain toilet, the sinks, everything off the walls."
But violence did not solve his problems, so he started to write songs. In the late 1980s, while staying in Avon Park Correctional Institution in Highlands County in Central Florida, Dillon said he began to work as an assistant in the prison's recreation department, which had a few old instruments. Dillon persuaded prison authorities to purchase more equipment and start a rock music program, where he was able to learn guitar.
From Avon Park, the Florida Department of Corrections sent Dillon to a handful of prisons throughout the state. In each facility, Dillon got involved in music. His favorite program was at Hardee Correctional Institution in Hardee County, where he was transferred in 2005.
Hardee was also the facility where Dillon's luck changed. One day in 2006, Dillon was sitting in the prison library when a fellow inmate walked up to him and asked, "Have you ever had a DNA test?" When Dillon said no, the inmate handed Dillon a form and said, "Fill this out and send it in."
"And that's exactly what I did," Dillon recalls. For the next two years, Dillon, aided by the legal nonprofit Florida Innocence Project, fought in court for the evidence from his trial to be DNA-tested, and then for the court to conclude that the absence of his DNA on the evidence meant he was innocent. He was finally released from prison on Nov. 18, 2008, nearly three decades after he was arrested.
When Dillon walked out of prison, he entered a world that was completely different from the one he had left in 1981. At the start of his sentence, "there were no cell phones," Dillon said. People "had just started using VCRs. There were cassette tapes, eight-tracks."
Dillon now has a girlfriend, Ellen Moskowitz, whom he met at a DNA exoneration conference. She manages his music career.
"Meeting Bill is something that changed my whole perspective … (he) came out with absolutely nothing and he's making a tremendous positive impact on the world right now through his music," she said.
Dillon got a big break last year after Grammy-winning producer Jim Tullio saw him on the Discovery Channel's On the Case with Paula Zahn. Tullio was immediately taken by Dillon's story. At the end of the episode, Zahn said Dillon's dream was to record an album.
Tullio reached out to the jailhouse musician and offered to let him record an album at his studio in Illinois for free. That album will go on sale Aug. 16.
Tullio said he wanted to help Dillon overcome the "worst horror I could ever imagine, to be caged like an animal … knowing you're innocent."