House passes wrongful conviction compensation
By BILL KACZOR
TALLAHASSEE William Dillon was momentarily overcome with emotion in the Florida House gallery on Friday as the chamber passed a bill that would compensate him $1.35 million for spending 27 years in prison for a murder he did not commit.
The vote came about 10 months after the House failed to act on a similar measure as time ran out on the 2011 legislative session. The Senate, as it did last year, passed the legislation first and sent it to the House. This year’s bill (SB 2) now goes back to the Senate for approval of changes made by the House, which did not alter the dollar amount or the measure’s effect.
“It’s definitely a closure to a great degree,” Dillon said, fighting back tears. “They’re admitting that something wrong did happen.”
Dillon, now 52, was cleared by DNA testing in the beating death of James Dvorak on a Brevard County beach in 1981. Dillon was freed in November 2008. A jailhouse informant also has since recanted his testimony against Dillon and authorities reopened the murder investigation.
The Legislature must pass a claims bill for Dillon to receive compensation because he does not qualify for automatic payment due to a prior drug conviction when he was 19 years old.
The House applauded when Dillon was introduced and after debate by Rep. Will Weatherford, a Wesley Chapel Republican who is in line to become speaker in November.
“The thought of me living my entire life, my lifespan, in a prison for a crime I did not commit is beyond my comprehension,” the 32-year-old Weatherford said.
“There’s no price tag you can put on that,” he added. “There is no dollar amount that can give this man his 27 years. It will not happen.”
Weatherford said the bill would give Dillon, his family and others harmed by his wrongful conviction “something precious, right and humane.”
The roll call was 107-5. Opponents said the claims bill process is flawed because it rewards those who have the best lobbyists.
“We are not here to be judge and jury,” said Rep. John Wood, R-Winter Haven. “I for one resent having to determine these kinds of matters when we should be focusing on what’s important for the people of Florida.”
Dillon now lives in Chapel Hill, N.C., where he writes and performs music. He recently released a CD titled “Black Robes and Lawyers” that draws on his experience with the justice system. He said he’s not bitter.
“You can either be real glum and sad and have ulcers about it, or you can just put it in the past and say `I’m going to be positive about it and keep moving forward,”’ he said.
Senate President Mike Haridopolos, a Merritt Island Republican, sponsored the bill and made it a top priority this year and last. The Senate passed this year’s bill on Jan. 10, the first day of the 60 day legislative session. Haridopolos said that he wanted to make sure the House had plenty of time to consider it after what happened last year.
Dillon thanked the Florida Innocence Project that helped him win his freedom along with his lawyer, former Florida State University President Talbot “Sandy” D’Alemberte, and lobbyist Guy Spearman, both of whom worked on his case without fee.
The Senate is expected to send the bill to Gov. Rick Scott who has not taken a position on it yet. D’Alemberte said he has spoken to Scott’s chief of staff, Steve MacNamara, a longtime friend whom he said has an interest in the bill. MacNamara also was Haridopolos’ chief of staff before moving to the governor’s office.
“I’m not worried about the governor vetoing it,” D’Alemberte said.