Photo by Patricia Lois Nuss
William Dillon was freed from a Florida prison in late 2008 after serving nearly 27 years for a murder DNA proves he didn’t commit. He was wrongfully convicted in 1981 based on a questionable eyewitness identification, unreliable testimony from the handler of a scent-tracking dog and testimony from a jailhouse informant.
In the early morning hours of August 17, 1981, James Dvorak was beaten to death in a wooded area near Canova Beach, in Brevard County on Florida’s east coast. Later that morning, a driver picked up a hitchhiker near the beach wearing a bloody yellow T-shirt with the words “Surf It.”
The driver was able to see the hitchhiker by his truck’s interior light, and he later told investigators that the man was sweaty and had blood on his T-shirt and smeared on his leg and shorts. He agreed to drive the hitchhiker to a tavern three miles away. On the way to the bar, he stopped the car and performed oral sex on the hitchhiker. He then dropped the hitchhiker at the tavern. Later that morning, the driver found that the hitchhiker had left the bloody T-shirt in his truck and he disposed of the shirt in a trash can near a grocery store.
The victim’s body – nude and severely beaten – was found that morning in the wooded area near the beach. Law enforcement officers collected the victim’s discarded clothing and other items from the crime scene. Later the same day, the driver saw a news story about the murder and called police to tell them about the hitchhiker. Police recovered the T-shirt from the trash can and collected other evidence from the driver’s truck.
Five days later, Dillon was with his brother at the beach when they were questioned by two law enforcement officers. Although the case had appeared in the media for five days, the officers said they were suspicious that Dillon knew about the murder and they brought him to the station for further questioning.
As part of the investigation, authorities hired John Preston, a purported expert in handling scent-tracking dogs. Eight days after the crime, Preston and his dog, Harass II, conducted two tests which he said linked the T-shirt to the crime scene and Dillon to the T-shirt. In the second test, a “paper lineup” which allegedly linked Dillon to the T-shirt, Preston allowed his dog to sniff the T-shirt and then pieces of paper, including one Dillon had touched. Preston said the dog selected Dillon’s paper, and Dillon was arrested and charged with the murder.
Prosecutors presented four main witnesses against Dillon at his trial.
A former girlfriend of Dillon’s testified that she was with him on the night of the crime and had seen him standing over the victim’s body wearing the yellow T-shirt. Her testimony was contradictory at times, however, and she admitted to being confused on the stand.
Preston, the dog handler, testified that his dog had connected Dillon with the crime scene and the T-shirt worn by the perpetrator. The driver, who was legally blind in one eye, identified Dillon in court as the hitchhiker he had picked up near the crime scene. His initial description of the hitchhiker, however, did not match Dillon’s physical characteristics. He originally said the hitchhiker was six feet tall and had a mustache. Dillon is 6-foot-4-inches and is physically unable to grow a mustache. Other aspects of his description also did not match Dillon’s features.
A jailhouse snitch also testified that Dillon admitted guilt to him while in jail awaiting trial. Several details of the alleged confession didn’t fit with the crime and, despite the presence of other prisoners at the time, there were no other witnesses to the confession. After Dillon’s trial, rape charges pending against the snitch were dropped by prosecutors.
Dillon took the stand in his own defense and testified that he had been miles away from the beach on the night of the crime, and witnesses corroborated his alibi. After a five-day trial, he was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison.
Less than two weeks after the trial, Dillon’s ex-girlfriend recanted her testimony. She said she had fabricated the story about seeing Dillon at the crime scene because law enforcement officers had threatened her with 25 years in prison as an accessory if she didn’t testify against him. Later, it was revealed that she also had sexual intercourse during the investigation with the lead officer in the case. The officer was suspended in connection with the incident and would eventually resign.
Just three months after Dillon was sentenced, another Brevard County man – Wilton Dedge – was convicted in Brevard County of a murder based on an unreliable identification, a jailhouse snitch and the testimony of dog handler John Preston. Dedge, an Innocence Project client, was exonerated by DNA testing in 2004 after serving 22 years in prison.
Two years after Dillon’s conviction, questions began to arise around the country about Preston’s qualifications. By this time, Preston had participated in hundreds of cases and his testimony helped lead to countless convictions. His dog failed an accuracy test conducted by a Brevard County judge. The Arizona Supreme Court called him a “charlatan.” In 2008, a Brevard County judge said Preston was used by prosecutors “to confirm the state’s preconceived notions.” Dillon’s attorneys have alleged that prosecutors had doubts about the reliability of Preston’s testimony before Dillon’s trial but did not share these doubts with defense attorneys at the time. Dog scent identification is not a validated science and has played a part in other wrongful convictions later overturned by DNA testing.
Post-Conviction Appeals and Exoneration
Dillon filed several appeals in the five years following his conviction; all were denied. In 1996, he began to seek access to biological evidence for DNA testing, but these requests were also denied. In 2007, with the help of public defenders and attorneys at the Innocence Project of Florida, Dillon again requested DNA testing. This time, officials determined that most of the evidence from the investigation – including fingernail scrapings from the victim and blood and hair from the crime scene – had been lost or destroyed. The yellow T-shirt, however, had been saved. A judge ordered testing on the remaining evidence.
The results of DNA testing showed that the yellow T-shirt was conclusively tied to the killer and had not been worn by Dillon. Blood on the T-shirt matched the DNA profile of the victim. Biological material of another man was discovered on the collar and armpit of the T-shirt, indicating sweat or skin cells from the man who wore the shirt. The DNA profile developed from these areas of the shirt excluded both the victim and William Dillon.
Based on the results of these DNA tests, Dillon was released from prison on November 18, 2008, and his exoneration became official when prosecutors dropped all charges against him on December 10.