Not forgiven, not forgotten
Thirty years after being falsely convicted of murder, and three years after being exonerated, William Dillon is still seeking justice
Published: August 11, 2011
Five days later, Joe Dillon pulled his black Monte Carlo into the parking lot across the street from the Pelican, a bar not far from the crime scene. William was in the passenger seat, smoking a joint. “A man and older woman come up to the car and say: ‘We’re sheriff’s department,’” William Dillon says. “I freak out; I’m putting out the joint in the palm of my hand.”
The visibly nervous Dillon, who skipped out on the police interview requested of him the following day, soon became not only a suspect, but the suspect. During questioning, Dillon was asked to crumple up a piece of paper. A dog handler named John Preston, contracted by the sheriff’s office, said that his German shepherd, named Harass II, matched the scent of Dillon from the paper to the T-shirt. In 1984, Preston left the county after his dog failed a simple scent test. An investigative report later that year aired by 20/20, which firmly established his reputation as a fraud, guaranteed he would not find work anywhere else in the country. (For more details about the investigation, see our Oct. 11, 2007, feature, “26 years,” which Dillon credits as “getting the ball rolling” for his release.)
The day after Dillon was indicted, the Brevard County Sheriff’s Office received an anonymous tip that a man named James Johnstone had likely committed the crime. The note was quietly filed away, only to be acknowledged decades later. (The Brevard County Sheriff’s Office says it does not know who filed the tip, but Dillon suspects it is a closely guarded secret.)
Despite Harass II’s scent match and a puzzling array of witnesses who claimed they saw a shirtless Dillon at the Pelican just after Dvorak’s death, the case against Dillon at first appeared weak. The description of the hitchhiker John Parker encountered did not seem to match Dillon at all. One of the prosecution’s chief witnesses, a woman named Donna Parrish whom Dillon had casually dated, changed her story several times throughout the trial; in addition, she had sex with the chief investigator of the case. “It just didn’t seem possible that he was going to be found guilty,” Dillon’s father, also named Joe, says.
Joe Sr. was so convinced of a forthcoming acquittal that he didn’t even bother to stay for the verdict when the jury went into deliberations on Dec. 4, 1981 – he did however, write a brief letter thanking the jurors. But the verdict that was announced an hour and a half later was the unthinkable: guilty of first-degree murder. Dillon’s sister, Debbie, was sitting two rows behind him. “I had to be led out of the room,” she says. “I had lost it. I didn’t even see them take him off.”
Within the first hour of his life sentence, Dillon was gang-raped. (A week and a half later, Parrish recanted her testimony against Dillon, stating she had been pressured by police.) As the years wore on, he says, he considered suicide. “I was just going to take a run and jump at the fence and have ’em shoot me off it,” he says. He reconsidered after noting that others had tried the same, only to be paralyzed after taking a bullet to the spine.
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