At 21, William Dillon stood to hear a Brevard County judge sentence him to life in prison for murder.
For the next 27 years, Dillon proclaimed his innocence. He finally was released from prison in 2008.
Last month, I watched Dillon stand to preach a message of freedom to a small Florida congregation. Humbly receiving introductory applause, Dillon bowed with a noticeable shudder to his stance.
Whispers filled the quiet congregation.
“It looks like he’s praying,” observed one congregant.
“It’s OK,” assured another parishioner, “We are all here with you.”
More deep breaths. Dillon’s face reddened as he tried to steady himself.
“Good morning,” he finally managed to say. Then he expelled more deep breaths and more sobs.
Finally, “I’d like to thank God, for what he did and the many people . . involved in freeing me. It was quite a journey.”
Dillon’s journey through false accusations started when he pulled off a Florida coastal highway for a smoke on Aug. 21, 1981.
As he stood watching the waves, sheriff’s investigators approached, asking Dillon if he knew anything about a murder on the same beach five days earlier.
Dillon assured them he knew only what he’d read in the paper. Yet, in less than 24 hours, a witness who was legally blind in one eye, a spurned girlfriend and a fraudulent scent-dog handler made the case to arrest Dillon for the beachside murder.
With that kind of evidence, he doesn’t blame the jury.
“I would have convicted myself,” he said.
Dillon was convicted in record time and went to Florida State Prison on March 22, 1982.
“This was a place for violent offenders,” Dillon said, “not first-time offenders. Somebody must have requested that I be sent there in hopes I’d disappear or be destroyed.”
Despite his lawyer’s insistence that this could be fixed, Dillon said, “I knew my life was over.”
As the years sailed by, his life certainly seemed over. He wrote letters to every justice organization he could, including the famed Innocence Project, yet his cries went unanswered.
“I know through the torments, I never forgot that I was an innocent man,” he said to a weeping congregation. “The problem was, the innocent man was gone.”
Determined to keep his youthful innocence in prison, Dillon created a music department though donations and grants.
“With the music,” he said, “I got people to think more about the right things than the wrong things.”
Finally, Dillon sat down to write one more letter. This one was addressed to a judge asking for a DNA test.
“I prayed about it before mailing it,” he said, “and four months later, it was granted.”
Finally, the Innocence Project joined the fight, and DNA tests led to Dillon’s freedom in November 2008.
I asked him about the spiritual strength that sustained him though nearly 27 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit, and he credited God.
His faith reminded me of the prophet Isaiah, who would credit God for “freedom for the prisoners and . . . release for the oppressed.”
“It’s been a ride, and God has blessed me and taken all the corners,” he said. “God gave me a bulldog for a lawyer and the Innocence Project team who knew about DNA.”
With no formal religion, Dillon declares that his “religion is my belief that God exists. I believe wholeheartedly in the Creator. I know that God works.”
Recalling the image of a beach where his nightmare began, Dillon likened his deliverance to “God picking me up like a grain of sand on the beach. He washed me up and made me a free man.”
For more about William Dillon, visit http://tinyurl.com/williamdillon.
Burkes is a former civilian hospital chaplain and an Air National Guard chaplain. Write norris@ thechaplain.net or visit thechaplain.net. You also can follow him on Twitter, username is “chaplain,” or on Facebook at facebook.com/norrisburkes.