Wrongly convicted man sings for the Rays

Finally freed in 2008, William Dillon did 27 years for a crime he didn’t commit. Tonight, he sings the national anthem at the Rays game.
Finally freed in 2008, William Dillon did 27 years for a crime he didn’t commit. Tonight, he sings the national anthem at the Rays game.
Published Jul. 18, 2012

The story of William Dillon is as tragic as a man wrongfully imprisoned for 27 years for murder, a story of bad evidence, flawed witnesses and a discredited investigation.

And today, it is a story as American as baseball.

Tonight, just before the Tampa Bay Rays hit the field at the Trop to take on the Cleveland Indians, a 52-year-old man whose life went down a road most of us can't imagine will stand before the crowd to sing the national anthem, his voice steady, gravelly, a little Johnny Cash.

To be there for this after all that? "Utterly amazing," he tells me.

In 1981, he was 21, living in Brevard County and a pretty fair baseball player himself. He worked two jobs — carpenter's helper and bowling alley mechanic — chased pretty girls and tried to figure out the rest of his life. Turns out it was out of his hands.

He was hanging out at Canova Beach days after a man named James Dvorak was found beaten to death. He was questioned by police and eventually arrested, the start of a free fall down a very dark hole.

Later, a dog handler with dog scent evidence against him was discredited. A witness recanted and said she had sex with the lead investigator. A jail informant who said Dillon confessed had pending charges dropped. But the jury had said guilty. Dillon went to prison.

Years passed, the family holidays, the children he would not have. I ask if you lose hope. "Actually, you do," he says. And you survive.

After more than two decades, a fellow inmate asked if he'd tried to get DNA testing. "I didn't know what I was doing ... a wing and a prayer," he says. The Innocence Project and its considerable muscle took on his cause.

Key evidence was a yellow T-shirt with the victim's blood on it believed to be worn by the killer. All those years later, DNA tests said the sweat and cells on that shirt were not his.

He did not believe he would no longer be inmate 082629 until that moment in 2008 when they said: You can go. This year, the governor signed a bill for $1.35 million in compensation.

Imagine stepping back into a world you spent more than half your life locked way from. People seem to go 100 miles an hour, he says. His last phone was rotary dial, not one you put in your pocket. But he has an iPhone now, and a computer he calls "the most awesome thing I've ever seen."

Turns out someone with the Innocence Project has a neighbor with the Rays. There was talk of Dillon throwing out a first pitch. This week, the Rays said he will be there because his story deserves attention, because they support the Innocence Project, and because he can sing.

Dillon, who lives in Chapel Hill, has made this his work. He has a CD called Black Robes and Lawyers, those years in his own voice. (He writes songs of soldiers and sacrifice, too, his kindred spirits.) He has even performed in an all-exoneree band. There's a story of a flawed justice system for you: 292 post-conviction DNA exonerations in America. How many more, when one is too much?

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Dillon calls the Rays his team and would love to wear his Rays cap, though of course you don't when you are singing the most patriotic of songs. He will wear his shirt, though, the one that says in big letters: Not Guilty.

And when he sings the national anthem, that part about "the land of the free and the home of the brave" will not likely be lost on him.