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Unforgiving law creates new injustice

Bill Dillon's story captivated the state last year.

After 27 years in prison, the Brevard County resident was freed -- the result of belated tests that proved his DNA wasn't actually on the bloody T-shirt used in his murder conviction. An alleged expert dog handler who had tied him to the case was also later discredited and disgraced.

Dillon had entered the criminal system as a 22-year-old kid.

He had missed the years when many of us marry, have kids and take summer vacations.

But finally, at age 49, Dillon was free.

It only made sense that he would be compensated for his lost liberty. And last we heard, Dillon was slated to receive $1.35 million -- the standard $50,000 a year Florida pays to the wrongfully convicted.

Only he didn't.

In the time that passed since his case dropped out of the headlines, Bill Dillon hasn't gotten a thing from the state that wrongly locked him up.

And unless something changes, he won't.

The reason: Back when he was 19, he pleaded guilty to drunken driving and possession of a controlled substance -- triggering an exemption to the state's Wrongful Incarceration Act.

At the time, the conviction netted him probation and $150 fine. But now it's costing him more than $1 million.

Dillon has tried to remain positive about his life.

"I thank the Lord every morning when I wake up," he said last week during a break from his job at a car-parts store in Melbourne. "It doesn't matter if there's a penny in my pocket. I am grateful for my life."

Still, when pressed, Dillon acknowledged he was irritated to learn he wouldn't automatically get the money the state gives others.

"I just don't see why a DUI when I was 19 should have any effect on how they took 27 and a half years of my life," he said. "You can imagine what happened to me in those prisons.

"I don't want to get paid for the time. I want to get paid for the torment."

Dillon's problem is a provision that state legislators attached to the Wrongful Incarceration Act -- something they called the "clean hands" provision.

Basically, the provision says people who are wrongfully convicted are automatically entitled to $50,000 for every year they spend behind bars -- unless they have a prior felony. Dillon's DUI from 30 years ago was that felony.

When legislators passed the law, it was the only one of its kind in the country. And there's a reason for that: Because it lacks sense.

If you unjustly imprison someone, you messed up. Period. And you need to make amends.

Politicians -- especially those who love to tout the value of personal responsibility and owning up to your actions -- should realize that.

Right now, Dillon can't get the money unless the Legislature votes to give it to him.

Fortunately, he has a champion on that front: State Sen. Mike Haridopolos. "I'm supportive," said the Brevard County Republican who led a similar effort to compensate another Brevard resident, Wilton Dedge, an innocent man who was locked up for more than two decades.

"I mean, the guy lost 27 years of his life," Haridopolos said. "I was in sixth grade back then. How do you put a price tag on freedom?"

Haridopolos deserves kudos for taking up the case. It takes more courage to stick up for the rights of those who have been unjustly imprisoned than it does to campaign on law-and-order promises to keep our prisons full.

After all, the wrongfully accused and imprisoned don't have a particularly well-funded lobby.

That's part of why the Innocence Project of Florida -- which helped secure the release of both Dillon and Dedge -- thinks Florida's law should be changed.

"It's supposed to be an automatic trigger," said Seth Miller, the project's executive director. "When someone is exonerated based on innocence, they shouldn't have to bow to the whims of the political process."

The legislative route also takes more time.

Haridopolos may be able to introduce legislation on Dillon's behalf this year -- but he said it probably couldn't pass until next.

Until then, Dillon will continue working in his part-time job -- the one he's extremely grateful to have, but which doesn't pay enough to live very well.

Still, Dillon tries not to get too frustrated about his lot in life. He knows the anger could easily consume him. (Wouldn't it you?) And he doesn't want that.

"Oh, I was ticked off for a long time. But I realized I couldn't do it anymore," he said. "The people around me now are not the ones responsible for what happened to me. So how could I take it out on them?

"I just knew I had to find a better way -- and God helped -- because the other way is total destruction."

Scott Maxwell can be reached at smaxwell@orlandosentinel.com or 407-420-6141.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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