William Dillon is a free man for the first time since 1981 – and his case is leading to renewed calls for an independent investigation into the criminal justice system in Brevard County, Florida, as well as an investigation into other convictions around the state that relied on testimony from a discredited dog handler. Dillon was wrongfully convicted of the murder of a man in Canova Beach, Florida. He served 27 years for the crime until all charges were dropped in December based on new DNA testing in his case.
Dillon, now 49, was released in time to celebrate the holidays with his family for the first time in more than a quarter of a century. DNA testing on a bloody t-shirt that was used to convict him showed that the blood was from the victim and other unidentified individuals – but was not from Dillon. His conviction also relied on testimony from dog handler John Preston, who has since been discredited by prosecutors and Federal Postal Inspectors in several states. Preston testified that his dog linked Dillon to the murder through a scent from the bloody t-shirt.
Dillon’s case is eerily similar to that of Wilton Dedge, an Innocence Project client who was exonerated in the same county in 2004, after spending 22 years in prison for a rape he did not commit. In Dedge’s case, Preston testified that his dog sniffed an item with Dedge’s scent on it and then alerted Preston that Dedge had been in the victim’s home. Dillon and Dedge were also convicted, in part, based on false testimony from jailhouse informants and other unreliable witnesses.
The Innocence Project of Florida, which helped secure and fund DNA testing for Dillon, has called on Florida Gov. Charlie Crist to launch a state investigation into the Brevard County prosecutor’s office and the county sheriff’s office. Newspapers around the state are joining the call for an investigation. “Prosecutors’ mishandling of the cases along with actions by the Brevard County Sheriff’s Office follows a pattern of possible criminal behavior that can no longer be swept under the rug,” Florida Today said in an editorial.
An investigation should look into the connection between the sheriff’s office, the prosecutor’s office and Preston, the Innocence Project of Florida said – citing a “culture of corruption” where Preston would reach determinations based on what police and prosecutors needed to secure a conviction. The Innocence Project of Florida is calling for an investigation into the justice system in Brevard County, as well as a reexamination of other cases that relied on Preston’s testimony.
For years, Brevard County police worked closely with Preston and prosecutors used him in criminal trials. The Arizona Supreme Court has called Preston a “charlatan.” And in a sworn affidavit, retired Brevard County Judge Gilbert Goshorn said he believed Preston was used by Brevard prosecutors “to confirm the state’s preconceived notions.” Even as Preston’s work has faced increased questions – including nearly five years ago when Dedge was exonerated – the state has not reviewed other convictions involving testimony from Preston. “There are other wrongful convictions out there that need to be uncovered,” said Innocence Project of Florida Executive Director Seth Miller, who has offered to help Gov. Crist’s office structure an independent investigation.