Bill Dillon has spent the last 27 years in Florida’s Hardee Correctional Institution for the vicious 1981 murder of James Dvorak `see “26 years,” Oct. 11, 2007`. Dvorak was bludgeoned, his lips were peeled off and he was left for dead in a wooded portion of Canova Beach.

Following a trial that could generously be described as a joke – a prosecution witness legally blind in one eye, a girlfriend who was sleeping with the lead investigator in the case and changed her story multiple times, a lousy lawyer who was later disbarred, and a tracking dog and handler later determined to be frauds – Dillon was convicted of Dvorak’s murder and sentenced to life in prison.

At trial, the proverbial smoking gun was a bloodied yellow T-shirt bearing the phrase “Surf It” that prosecutors said was worn by the killer. As assistant state attorney Michael Hunt told Dillon’s jury, “Using this yellow ‘Surf It’ T-shirt we will confirm the defendant’s `presence` at the scene of the murder.”

One problem: The blood on that shirt doesn’t belong to Dillon. According to a report released July 28, the Dallas DNA lab Orchid Cellmark extracted three DNA profiles from the shirt. Those profiles matched Dvorak and two others who have not been identified. (The samples are too degraded to check for matches through the national DNA database.) They did not, however, match Dillon. If, as the prosecutors said at trial, the blood on the T-shirt belongs to the killer, then Dillon isn’t the killer.

In other words, Bill Dillon is almost certainly innocent. Add the DNA exoneration to all the problems associated with his farce of a trial nearly three decades ago, and one has to wonder why he still sits in state prison.

It wouldn’t be the first time Brevard County prosecutors imprisoned a man who was later cleared by DNA evidence. In 2005, Wilton Dedge was released after serving 22 years in prison for a rape that DNA evidence proved he did not commit. Assistant state attorney Wayne Holmes handled that case as well as Dillon’s, and takes credit for freeing Dedge after DNA cleared him. Lawyers for the Innocence Project of Florida, which assisted both Dedge and Dillon, say that’s laughable. Even after DNA evidence exonerated Dedge, they say, prosecutors fought his release.

Still, Holmes says that if the evidence convinced him of Dillon’s innocence, he would push for his release. But right now, the state attorney’s office isn’t admitting defeat, DNA be damned, so it isn’t entirely clear what evidentiary hurdles Dillon would have to clear to change Holmes’ mind.

Holmes points out that the defense chose only to test the shirt, not the cigarette butts, jeans and other samples that could contain Dillon’s DNA. He also suggests the shirt could have been contaminated – though at trial prosecutors argued that the killer’s DNA would be all over the shirt, since that person probably would have been sweating profusely while beating a man to death on a boiling August day.

“There were skin cells from two other people on an item that was recovered from the dumpster,” Holmes says. “It could have been exposed to numerous other people and cross-contaminated. What `the Innocence Project` is trying to say is this proves actual innocence. The results are far from it.”

How’s that for logical gymnastics? Prosecutors were all too happy to use this bloody T-shirt at trial as proof of Dillon’s guilt, but now say the shirt and the DNA it contains don’t really matter.

Innocence Project of Florida attorney Seth Miller says his group tested the shirt because it was the most important piece of evidence, and to test all of the evidence would be both costly and time-consuming; Dillon would end up staying in prison even longer as the tests dragged out. He says additional testing is unnecessary, but he has no problem with prosecutors paying for more DNA tests.

“I think it’s troubling that whenever evidence presents itself, `prosecutors` twist and use it to prop up the conviction and preserve the conviction,” Miller says. “It’s unfortunate. They can argue `contamination` all they want, but if `other` people touched the shirt, it doesn’t remove the perpetrator’s DNA.”

The circumstances surrounding that shirt have always been sketchy. Even though the state asserted at trial that it tied Dillon to the crime scene, prosecutors knew that the blood on the shirt wasn’t a blood type match for either Dillon or Dvorak. They didn’t tell Dillon’s defense lawyer until after he was convicted.

Dillon’s public defender, Mike Pirolo, will ask for a new trial, and hopes to have Dillon’s conviction tossed. “I anticipate the state will say something else,” Pirolo says. “They will say `Dillon’s` DNA was not on the shirt because it didn’t rub off. But they can’t say the shirt has nothing to do with it. I don’t think the state will lay down. I think they’ll fight it.”

It took months of wrangling between prosecutors and the defense even to get this far. Prosecutors resisted DNA testing at every turn. Ultimately a judge stepped in and approved the tests.

“It’s clear this shirt was worn by the murderer. This should be the end of that,” Miller says. “We think these results should exonerate `Dillon`. But these are the same characters as in Dedge’s case, so we’re not going to hold our breath. But it should happen.”

Meanwhile, Bill Dillon is still in prison for a crime that, in all likelihood, he didn’t commit. And the state attorney’s office seems OK with that.

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