CHAPEL HILL - William Michael Dillon was born on Aug. 31, 1959, 52 years ago today - but by his reckoning he's turning 24.
That's because he lost 28 years of his life to some of Florida's harshest prisons, where he was incarcerated for a murder he didn't commit. Dillon was released in 2008 after DNA evidence exonerated him.
"I was an innocent 21-year-old kid when my life stopped on Aug, 26, 1981, the day I was arrested," said Dillon, who now lives in Chapel Hill. "It started again on November 18, 2008, the day I got out."
Music was one of the things that helped Dillon survive his nearly three decades behind bars. Now a free man, Dillon will release his first CD, "Black Robes and Lawyers," produced by Jim Tullio, a Chicago-based producer, on Sept. 27. He'll hold a CD release party that night at The Broad Street Café in Durham.
"Everybody has a story," said Dillon, who moved to Chapel Hill in March 2009. "My songs all come from my own experience, but I'm not alone in suffering. Everybody has difficulties and struggles, and I think everybody can relate to that."'Nothing to hide'
Dillon was an Air Force brat whose family had moved from one base to another in the U.S. and England before they settled in Brevard County, Fla., upon his father's retirement.
Dillon's life was unremarkable - he did construction and worked in a bowling alley - until one day when he and his brother pulled up at a beach access parking lot to go to the bar across the street.
"The next thing I knew there was a sheriff's deputy walking up to the car and saying, 'We're investigating a murder,'" Dillon recalled.
Five days earlier, the badly beaten body of a man named James Dvorak had been found by campers at a place called Canova Beach.
Dillon said the deputy asked him to come to the station the next day.
"I said OK, but then I didn't give it another thought," he said. "I had heard about the murder, but it had nothing to do with me. I didn't think anything more about it."
Police did, though.
A few days later they brought Dillon in for questioning. Among other things, they asked him to crumple up a piece of paper, and then released him in the custody of his mother.
"But then at about 10:30 that night, they came to my parents' home and said they had some more questions," Dillon said. "I knew I hadn't committed any murder, so I just went with the program.
"I told my Dad, 'It's OK. I have nothing to hide; I'll answer any questions they have.' So I went with them. I didn't see daylight again for 27 years."'Never going to make it'
A Tampa man told police that on the night of the murder he had picked up a hitchhiker who left a bloody yellow T-shirt in his truck. Police retrieved the shirt, which they believed belonged to the murderer. They hired a purported expert in handling scent-tracking dogs, and the dog linked the T-shirt to the piece of paper Dillon had handled.
Based on the dog's identification, testimony from eyewitnesses (including, critically, a former girlfriend) who said they saw him in the vicinity of the murder, and an inmate who told prosecutors Dillon had confessed to him in jail, Dillon was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison.
"The fear and horror of that ..." he said. "I had never been locked up before.
"Within the first hour, without having said or done anything to anyone, I was assaulted by five men. I came in with a little cardboard box of belongings, which pegged me as a new kid off the street, not a transfer from another prison. I didn't know anybody. I was an easy target."
That terrible first day gave way to the next, and the next, and the next, and Dillon saw that empty existence stretching out before him forever.
He had thoughts of suicide and "came close to insanity," he said, as he struggled to adapt to a life behind bars and to make sense of what had led him to this place.
"There were so many things trying to destroy me," he said. "There were many times when I thought, 'I'm never going to make it.' But at some point I thought, 'If you don't make it, they will win and you will lose, and you will always be remembered as a murderer, when in fact you have killed no one.'
"There was such a power in that. It helped me withstand the mental and physical abuses. Somehow I was able to hold on to that little glimmer: 'Hold on. Just hold on.'"'Lady Justice lost this one'
Dillon had sung all his life, in school choruses and such; he remembers his first public performance as a duet of "Blowin' in the Wind" with a girl in junior high school.
As the years passed in prison, he found himself drawn again to music. A couple of his fellow taught him the basics of the guitar. He played country and rock tunes and established a music program for inmates. One day he sat down and tried his hand at writing a song, penning the lyrics on sheets of thick prison-issue toilet paper.
Recounting in verse the injustice that had put him in this place, his first song included a chorus that went, "Black robes and lawyers/Justice served, it will be done/Black robes and lawyers/Lady Justice lost this one..."
Dillon went on to write more songs and to perform them for his fellow inmates. It was, he said, an important outlet for him.
In 2006 a law clerk asked Dillon whether he'd ever had DNA testing. He hadn't, but that year, with the aid of the Florida Innocence Project, he sought the test, in hopes of proving his innocence.
The Innocence Project became interested in Dillon's case because the evidence used to convict him was weak, or worse. The "evidence-sniffing" dog and trainer that had picked Dillon's scent were ultimately discredited; the former girlfriend recanted her testimony and admitted sleeping with the lead detective; and the jailhouse informant's own charges were dropped after he talked.
Moreover, the truck driver told police the man in the yellow shirt was of medium height, with short hair and a moustache; Dillon is 6' 4", had long hair and was clean-shaven.
In 2008, DNA evidence in the case was released. The bloody T-shirt contained the DNA of two men. One was the victim. The other? Unknown, but definitively not William Dillon.
On Nov. 18, 2008, Dillon walked out of prison as a free man, having spent all of his 30s and almost all of his 20s and 40s behind bars. Three weeks later, prosecutors dropped all charges.'If anybody deservesa break'
Tullio, a Grammy Award winning producer, was working one night when he walked into the kitchen in the back of his Chicago studio to get a drink. He glanced at the TV he kept on back there. It was on the Discovery Channel, and Tullio saw newscaster Paula Zahn interviewing Dillon. His story stopped Tullio in his tracks.
"I was captivated," Tullio said. "I watched the whole thing. At the end Paula Zahn asked him about his desire to pursue a career in music. And I thought, 'If anybody in the world deserves a break, this is the guy.'"
He called the Discovery Channel, which in turn put him in touch with the Innocence Project, and finally got hold of Dillon. Tullio told him he wanted to help him record his music.
"He said, 'But you've never heard any of my music,'" Tullio said. "I said, 'Bill, it's not really about that.' I just wanted to help him out."
Dillon and his girlfriend, Ellen Moscovitz, whom he'd met through his work with the Innocence Project, went to Chicago.
Tullio and Dillon worked on Dillon's songs and wrote some new ones together, and they cut "Black Robes and Lawyers" during the course of several months.
"He blew me away," Tullio said. "He had written some really strong songs, and he's a great singer. He has this big, commanding voice. What was remarkable was how quickly he learned. It's not easy to make a record, for anybody. But he picked it up in a hurry. In a very short time, he became a pro."'Brand new start'
The world Dillon stepped into in 2008 was a very different one than the one he was taken from in 1981, and adapting to freedom took time. For the first six months, he says, he rarely went out, staying in his room and playing music.
But with the help of Moscovitz, Tullio and others, and with the new album and a schedule of live gigs set up, he's making his way.
"People ask me what's the most amazing thing about Bill," Tullio said. "The most amazing thing about Bill is that he's sane. Could you do 28 years, especially for something you didn't do? I couldn't do 28 minutes. He's a remarkable guy."
Dillon has been working since his release to try to collect some money under Florida's compensation law, for the decades he lost due his wrongful imprisonment. Thus far those efforts have been stymied.
In the meantime, Dillon says, he wants to play his music, talk to law students and others about his experience and the lessons to be drawn from it, and help other wrongfully imprisoned inmates win their freedom.
"I have a song called 'Brand New Start,'" he said. "It's about seeing your life, facing your challenges and starting fresh. I've seen a lot of death. I've seen so many ugly things. I've seen a whole lot of things that most people don't ever have to see.
"But I'm blessed to be a free man now. I have my music, and I have someone who loves me very much and who I love very much. I just want to do the right thing and be something positive in the world."