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.