Imagine being wrongfully convicted for a serious crime that you didn't commit, incarcerated for more than a quarter-century while the actual perpetrator remained free, wrenched away from a life that might have been but never was.
William Michael Dillon, now 53, lived that nightmare.
Earlier this month, the governor and Cabinet sitting as Florida's Clemency Board granted Dillon a full pardon. He had been wrongfully convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison in 1981 for a crime that DNA evidence ultimately indicated he didn't commit.
His sentence was vacated in late 2008 after 27 years of incarceration spent largely in a maximum security prison. The Innocence Project of Florida, a small but formidable not-for-profit based in Tallahassee that draws its name from the original Innocence Project in New York City, co-founded by Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld, had taken on the seemingly insurmountable challenge on Dillon's behalf.
A victim of eyewitness misidentification, "junk science," self-serving testimony of a jailhouse "snitch," perjured witness testimony and manufactured evidence, his case had been undermined by virtually every conceivable element of a classic wrongful conviction case study.
To be clear, this month's pardon was not for the wrongful conviction. It was for a drug possession offense in 1979 when Dillon was barely 19 for which adjudication was withheld. He had a Quaalude in his pocket.
Why the emphasis upon that offense now after all that has unfolded? Simply put, the pardon affords Dillon some added sense of vindication and closure as he embarks upon the rest of his life as a free man.
Dillon was catapulted from prison into society without meaningful support or transitional assistance from the state. Ironically, the state would have provided more support to an ex-felon who had actually committed the crime.
Earlier this year, several years after he regained his freedom, the Legislature finally passed and Gov. Rick Scott signed a claims bill that awarded Dillon compensation. Because of a controversial provision requiring that exonerees have "clean hands," Dillon couldn't rely upon a compensation scheme the state adopted recently to address wrongful convictions. That is, exonerees must demonstrate they had no prior criminal history as a condition for eligibility to receive compensation from the state for the years that were stolen from them.
Critics assert one's prior criminal history should not absolve the state of responsibility for completely unrelated wrongful convictions. Dillon's prior drug possession offense essentially meant that an individual claims bill was necessary, an exceedingly difficult legislative process to navigate.
That is not the only controversial provision of the state's compensation scheme that arguably places undue burden upon exonerees even after courts have acknowledged the legitimacy of their claims of innocence.
Dillon's story is truly remarkable and continues to unfold. Among other things, he launched a promising music career and released a CD entitled Black Robes and Lawyers, the lyrics for which he wrote on toilet paper while incarcerated. Readers may recall his moving rendition of the national anthem at a Tampa Bay Rays game this past summer.
While indeed remarkable, his tragic fate is not unique. Thus far, there have been 301 DNA exonerations nationwide, including 13 in Florida, and in every instance shattered lives.
In 2010, incoming Supreme Court of Florida Chief Justice Charles Canady established the Florida Innocence Commission to research wrongful convictions that had been officially acknowledged to identify reforms necessary to improve the administration of justice to address the underlying causes.
The commission filed an interim report last year and a final report this past summer that contain a range of findings and recommendations. The reports also identified at least four key actors: (1) the Legislature, (2) the courts, (3) the law enforcement community and (4) the Florida Bar, and noted that the executive branch can play an important role by framing these recommendations as a top priority.
Some advocates say the commission's work didn't go far enough. But it's a good place to start.
Apart from periodic visibility generated by "the next exoneration" and extraordinary stories like William Michael Dillon's, there is no mechanism or framework to keep these issues in the public eye.
If ever there was a cause to champion, innocence certainly is one. Had the kind of reforms contemplated in the commission's findings and recommendations been implemented before Dillon was wrongfully convicted, he and many others might have avoided the tragic fates that befell them — and still more might avoid similar fates in the future.
Judges, legislators, law enforcement officials, educators, lawyers, state attorneys, public defenders and an array of subject matter experts invested two years of hard work in pursuit of solutions. These issues cut right to the core of the integrity of our criminal justice system. All of us have a stake in ensuring that appropriate steps are taken to address the causes of wrongful convictions without further delay.
Mark Schlakman is senior program director for the FSU Center for the Advancement of Human Rights and immediate past board chair of the Innocence Project of Florida. He represented William Michael Dillon pro bono within the context of the Clemency Board proceedings. Les Garringer formerly was executive director of the Florida Innocence Commission. They wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times. The commission's report can be read at flcourts.org/gen_public/innocence.shtml.