Wrongful convictions: One of Florida's greatest shames
Testimony from now-discredited dog handler John Preston helped convict William Dillon (above in 2008) and others. (George Skene, Orlando Sentinel file)
With cameras rolling, Gov. Rick Scott apologized to Bill Dillon for the corrupt process that led to his conviction and signed a bill compensating Dillon with $50,000 for each year stolen from his life.
Yet this ugly chapter of Florida's history is not over. Because dozens of other men were also convicted by the same fraudulent witness who helped imprison Dillon.
And the state isn't doing a thing to right those wrongs.
In fact, as Dillon drove home from Tallahassee on Friday, he was unable to revel in the end of his three-decade-long nightmare. Instead, he found himself thinking about all the others whose cases were never properly vetted.
"They deserve to have their cases checked out," he said. "My goodness, they deserve at least that much."
They are the dozens of men also convicted with the help of John Preston.
Preston was a dog handler — the guy Brevard County authorities called in the 1980s when they couldn't make a case legitimately.
Preston who would say whatever they wanted him to.
He once claimed that his German shepherd picked up a suspect's scent in the middle of a lake. Another time, he claimed the dog caught a scent in the middle of a busy highway — months after the crime had been committed.
No other dogs could do such things. And it turned out that Preston's couldn't either.
A judge later exposed him as a fraud. In a court-supervised test, the dog could do virtually none of what Preston had claimed.
The judge would later say that Preston, now deceased, was retained "to confirm the state's preconceived notions about cases."
As horrifying as that may sound — that cops and prosecutors knowingly conspired to use bad evidence to convict people — it was actually pretty simple.
Most of the cases involved horrendous crimes, such as rapes and murders. In Dillon's case, a man had been stabbed to death and his body left in the woods. Jurors were eager to make someone pay — and ready to believe anyone who would help them do that.
Along with the bogus testimony from Preston, Brevard authorities also relied upon witnesses who would later be discredited as well. (Two recanted their testimony. One had sex with an investigator.)
"I never got over how easy it was for them to do it," Dillon recalled Friday. "Or how long it took for them to be found out."
After Preston was exposed, some of the men began filing appeals with the help of nonprofit groups such as the Innocence Project.
So far, three men whom Preston helped convict have been freed from prison — after spending, collectively, more than 50 years behind bars.
An appeal is under way for a fourth.
Dillon and justice advocates are convinced there are more.
But Florida officials have never conducted a comprehensive investigation into all of Preston's old cases.
Instead, they have relied on individual defendants to file their own appeals … something that took Dillon and one of the other exonerees more than two decades on their own.
State Attorney Norm Wolfinger turned his back on this matter long ago. Former Gov. Charlie Crist did the same.
The promise was supposed to rest with Attorney General Pam Bondi. When campaigning, she vowed to look into all of the Preston cases — for the sake of those still behind bars, as well as those who served their sentences but still carry the stain of a felony conviction.
No one wanted Bondi or anyone else to push for mass exonerations — just to conduct a thorough and independent investigation into all of the cases in which Preston was involved.
But after Bondi got elected, her interest waned.
It's probably not surprising. The plight of the wrongfully convicted isn't sexy. Their lobby isn't powerful. The volunteer activists and lawyers don't cut campaign checks.
And rarely does the public champion the cause.
Fighting for the wrongly convicted is simply the right thing to do … which apparently isn't reason enough.
Dillon said Friday that he was heartened by Gov. Scott's full-throated apology on behalf of a state that did him wrong.
So perhaps Scott can do what all the others have not: call for a thorough investigation to study the legitimacy of all of the Preston convictions.
And maybe members of the public one day will encourage him to do so — and for Bondi to keep her word.
For I'm reminded of the comment from Martin Luther King: "The problems today are not the evil actions of the bad people, but the appalling silence and inaction of the good."
You can reach Scott's office at 850-488-7146 or flgov.com/contact-gov-scott and Bondi's office at 850-414-3300 or myfloridalegal.com/contact.
firstname.lastname@example.org or 407-420-6141