Saving the Criminal Justice System from Itself

The name of the fellow over there at the left is William (Bill) Dillon. At the time this picture was taken, in November, 2008, Dillon was 49 years old.

An unremarkable photo, really. A man in middle age, playing a guitar in what appears to be a kitchen of a suburban house or apartment somewhere.

But the circumstances surrounding that photo: remarkable indeed.

Until earlier on the day when that picture was taken, Bill Dillon had been imprisoned by the State of Florida for 27 years. His sentence, for the crime of murder in the first degree, had been life imprisonment.

Tsk, tsk, you may think. Once again, the bleeding-heart criminal justice system sets a murderer free to kill again. Perhaps you wonder how the people around Dillon could possibly seem so relaxed. They must be accomplices, you imagine.

Er, no.

For it turns out that Dillon did not commit — could not have committed — the crime for which he was convicted and imprisoned.

The facts of the State’s case against Dillon, and of his eventual exoneration, are sketched in at the Web site for the Innocence Project of Florida (IPF). In retrospect, you could be forgiven your surprise — at the least — that he ever ended up in court in the first place, let alone in prison, considering:

  • Eyewitness misidentification
  • Eyewitness manipulation by prosecutors
  • Bogus evidence from a discredited “expert” dog handler
  • Most critically, a man’s T-shirt — which Dillon had never worn — connected to the crime via the victim’s blood rather than the criminal’s own DNA

Now, I know, one naturally tends to believe the testimony of eyewitnesses. “I saw it with my own eyes!” must rank among the two or three most common ways in which we testify to just about any truth, criminal or otherwise.

But while seeing may be believing, it’s believing which often leads us to see in the first place. Of the over 220 cases nationwide in which DNA evidence has overturned convictions for serious crimes, eyewitness misidentification was involved in over 80%. This has been true even when the very victim of the crime — how much more first-hand can you get? — singles out the “criminal” in a lineup or a rogues’ gallery of photos. (See, for instance, last night’s 60 Minutes program.)

As for mistakes or outright “misbehavior” by the authorities, of course, it’s easy to want to discount if not forgive them. We make mistakes in our jobs. We cut corners. It must happen with police and prosecutors too.

Sure it must. (And if I were the victim of a crime, you better believe I’d call the police.)

But gad. Mistakes which deprive someone else of nearly three decades of freedom? If Bill Dillon were your brother, your son, your second cousin twice removed, your neighbor — if Bill Dillon were you — would you so easily shrug and say, Well, these things happen…?

Over the weekend, I accompanied The Missus on a business trip — her business, not mine. The occasion: IPF received an award from the Space Coast Progressive Alliance in the county in which Bill Dillon was tried and convicted. The Missus, as IPF’s Assistant Director, got to accept the award on their behalf — but also, for the first time, got to meet Dillon. (She herself had only spoken to him on the phone before.)

And I got to meet him, too.

He’s tall, maybe six-two, and speaks clearly and plainly in a laconic voice of his experiences behind bars and in the courtroom, of his life in general. His speech is marked by candor, not rancor. He does not appear to be bitter. He’s adapted readily to the use of cell phones, devices which didn’t exist (except in crazy inventors’ feverish imaginations) when he went in. At a restaurant or among a crowd of people, he’s always looking around, alert, amazed. That he can find his way around Brevard County, where he still lives, is another source of constant surprise: whole neighborhoods have sprung up in his absence; new shopping malls exist where, a quarter-century ago, the wind blew across empty fields and marshes.

What he’s been through (and how well he went through it) boggles the mind. That he’s nowhere near the first — and certainly not the last — to have gone through it feels, well, impossible.

Even if The Missus weren’t involved in Dillon’s case, and cases like it, I’d still be in awe of and thrilled by IPF’s work in righting these sorts of wrongs in Florida.

But of course, that she is involved, well…

To conclude on a lighter note, here’s a video which IPF produced some time ago, regarding the “wonder dog” whose uncanny skills formed one of the keystones of the case against Bill Dillon, Wilton Dedge (released in 2004, after 20+ years behind bars), and many others. The clip includes excerpts from a 20/20 episode about the dog and his handler.

As the saying goes, even if fiction must make sense, real life often doesn’t.

Well done, Innocence Project of Florida. (And well done, Baby.)

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  1. Hurrah for the Missus. I am so glad you posted this.

  2. Susan Chandler says:

    Thanks for writing about Bill Dillon’s FIT/Space Coast Progressive Alliance appearance. Bill was no different behind razor wire and steel bars than he is now – friendly, funny and warm, he genuinely forgave everyone that harmed him a long time ago. He deserved a dozen more standing ovations! Kudos to your missus for her work with the Innocence Project of Florida.

  3. Julie: Thanks! Like you, I prefer not to post here about even vaguely political issues. But this issue (and obviously, The Missus’s involvement) was just too hard not to cover — it truly spans political persuasions. (Nobody with a brain wants an innocent person punished; nobody with a brain wants actual perpetrators of violent crimes to be walking around, not only not in prison but not even detected!)

    Thanks, Susan. It was a really nice evening!

  4. I’d like to blame Florida, but plenty of other states do this to people too. Having had to identify someone myself, I know how unreliable that can be. I believe that radiolab did a piece on this very topic. How does a person recover from such a loss of time and stay sane?

  5. marta: Trying to put an optimistic face on it… In a way, it’s a good thing that we live in a society where the default setting (as they say) for the need to identify a criminal is “off.” I mean, I’d hate to have to go through the equivalent of a driver’s-license exam to improve my eyewitnessing skills enough to make me reliable.

    On the other hand, yeah: it’s a shame it happens so easily, so often, and so universally, even in otherwise “good” societies.

  6. Lynn Wesp says:

    Hello, Bill,

    I was so touched about the injustice that happened to you. You are a wonderful survivor who has decided to go on with your life. You did it all right, and I am so proud of the person you are. God Bless you wonderful man.

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