Saturday, November 18, 2017
Public safety

Clemency board grants full pardon to wrongfully convicted man

RECOMMENDED READING


TALLAHASSEE — After a wrongful murder conviction that put him behind bars for 27 years, William Michael Dillon received formal forgiveness from the state Thursday.

Dillon, who was awarded a $1.3 million settlement by the state in March, stood before Gov. Rick Scott and the Cabinet and recounted how far his life has come since he was released from maximum security prison four years ago, exonerated by DNA evidence.

Clemency hearings, in which elected officials grant pardons and rule on whether to restore civil rights for convicted felons, are usually somber, even tearful.

But Dillon's testimony was upbeat, drawing smiles from an audience of freed felons waiting for their own opportunity to ask for the legal system's fullest measure of forgiveness.

In Dillon's case, his civil rights — the ability to sit on a jury, own guns, hold public office and vote — were returned after he was exonerated. But for him, the pardon he was granted Thursday was the real vindication.

"It's a great, great, great day to be here …" Dillon said, a silver necklace of a soaring bald eagle draped over his blue tie. "Now my life is good, I'm moving on, and I'm definitely going to make a positive impact from here on out."

Dillon's pardon, in many ways, is a final scene in a drama that began more than a quarter century ago and snatched his adult life just as it began.

Dillon was 21 years old in 1981 when law enforcement officers approached him at a Brevard County gas station to ask him about James Dvorak, who was beaten to death in a wooded area nearby.

Dillon worked two jobs — as a bowling alley mechanic and construction worker. And he spent his free time chasing pretty girls and trying to figure out what to do with his life. Innocent and unconcerned, he answered officers' questions.

But the interrogation resulted in an arrest and a deeply flawed investigation that was later discredited.

Officers assured reporters of Dillon's guilt, and the media trumpeted the charges.

"I was convicted by the press," Dillon said.

Remorseful journalists sent him apology letters after DNA tests proved his innocence, Dillon said.

Dillon's full pardon Thursday was a foregone conclusion.

Flanked by his girlfriend, Ellen Moscovitz, and his lawyer, Mark Schlakman, Dillon appeared relaxed as he thanked elected officials and promoted his CD, Black Robes and Lawyers.

Scott apologized on behalf of the state when he signed a claims bill during an emotional March ceremony. Attorney General Pam Bondi, after Thursday's hearing, said she was pleased to give the pardon.

"I hope he can go on with his life and be a productive citizen," she said.

Dillon's Johnny Cash-like voice and soulful lyrics got national media attention after he sang the national anthem at Tropicana Field when the Tampa Bay Rays took on the Cleveland Indians in July. That song doesn't appear on his CD, which is available on iTunes. He told the group he didn't have paper in prison, so he wrote the lyrics on toilet paper.

"Are you going to be on American Idol any time soon?" Scott joked.

"I sure hope so," Dillon, 53, replied with a laugh. "But that's for people under 25. Even though I'm only 25 years old if you count my years as a free man."

Dillon has big plans for the rest of his life, many of them colored by his desire to fix a flawed justice system.

He's the focus of a documentary on the Discovery Channel's I Didn't Do It, which first aired Dec. 10 and is scheduled for another run Sunday. He's written 600 pages for a book about his life. And he performs in an all-exoneree band.

He recently joined the board of the Innocence Project of Florida, which advocates for the exoneration of wrongfully convicted inmates.

He may take on one more legal hurdle, he said. He wants to expunge his record, have a completely clean slate.

He's also looking for a home in Boca Raton, where he hopes to run for elected office. Maybe sheriff.

"You've got to be somebody to change something," he said. "I want to change something."

Contact Brittany Alana Davis at [email protected] or (850) 323-0353.

Comments
On the night shift in Seminole Heights, Tampa police keep watch for a killer

On the night shift in Seminole Heights, Tampa police keep watch for a killer

TAMPATampa Police Lt. Gary Neal is almost halfway into his shift when the shots ring out.He jumps into his white 2016 Dodge Charger and races the few blocks from District 3 headquarters to the scene of a drive-by shooting in a city rattled by a strin...
Updated: 5 hours ago
Tampa couple recounts wrong-way DUI crash on Courtney Campbell Causeway

Tampa couple recounts wrong-way DUI crash on Courtney Campbell Causeway

TAMPA — Police arrested a 26-year-old man they say drove the wrong way while drunk and caused a multi-vehicle crash that injured several people late Friday on the Courtney Campbell Causeway.Collin John Cole faces two counts of driving under the influ...
Updated: 5 hours ago
Boater missing in waters north of Bradenton, dog found alive

Boater missing in waters north of Bradenton, dog found alive

CORTEZ — The Coast Guard and others are scouring the waters near Mead Point, just inland from Anna Maria Island, for a 63-year-old boater who has been missing since Friday evening. Fraser Horne of Cortez left Egmont Key on his 30-foot boat, Golden Ru...
Updated: 5 hours ago
Romano: Hunting for a deadly needle in the Seminole Heights haystack

Romano: Hunting for a deadly needle in the Seminole Heights haystack

During the day, you hear from the psychics and the kooks. The well-intentioned tipsters, and the unsolicited profilers. This is all part of serial killer spillover, a sort of cottage industry of macabre.It gets tougher at night when you’re hounded by...
Updated: 5 hours ago

Possible wrong-way crash on Courtney Campbell Causeway late Friday

TAMPA — A multi-vehicle crash on the Courtney Campbell Causeway late Friday may have been caused by a driver traveling in the wrong direction, Tampa police said.The crash occurred in the eastbound lanes closer to the Tampa side of the causeway, near ...
Published: 11/17/17
Updated: 11/18/17
Tampa police investigate drive-by shooting in Seminole Heights

Tampa police investigate drive-by shooting in Seminole Heights

TAMPA — Police took one person into custody late Friday after a drive-by shooting ended in Seminole Heights.The incident, which unfolded about 11 p.m., did not appear to be related to the spate of other recent shootings in Seminole Heights that have ...
Published: 11/17/17
Updated: 11/18/17

Man hit, killed while crossing U.S. 19 in Palm Harbor

PALM HARBOR — A pedestrian died after he was hit by a vehicle Friday night, according to the Florida Highway Patrol.The man, who was not identified, was crossing U.S. 19 from west to east, north of Tampa Road in Palm Harbor about 8:30 p.m., troopers ...
Published: 11/17/17
19 digital billboards now spread word of reward in Seminole Heights killings

19 digital billboards now spread word of reward in Seminole Heights killings

TAMPA — To help spread the word about reward money offered in connection with four unsolved shooting deaths in Seminole Heights, two billboard companies have donated the use of a combined 19 digital billboards.On Thursday, police announced the reward...
Published: 11/17/17

Deputies: No injuries after reported gunshot near Seminole schools

SEMINOLE — Deputies are investigating a report of a gunshot that resulted in two schools being put on lockdown Friday morning. About 8:24 a.m., the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office received a call at Rita’s Italian Ice, 13147 86th Ave., in Seminole. ...
Published: 11/17/17
20 injured in fire at Pennsylvania senior living community

20 injured in fire at Pennsylvania senior living community

WEST CHESTER, Pa. — A massive fire at a senior living community in Pennsylvania injured at least 20 people and forced dozens more, many of whom were unable to walk, into the cold night air. Firefighters were still dousing hot spots Friday, even thoug...
Published: 11/17/17