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Man spends 27 years wrongly imprisoned writing songs

By Kim Segal, CNN Supervising Producer
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Songs of innocence
  • William Michael Dillon is free of a murder conviction after DNA evidence
  • Grammy-winning producer helps him record songs he wrote in prison
  • Dillon also hopes state of Florida will pay him for wrongful incarceration

(CNN) -- Prison-issued toilet paper is what musician William Michael Dillon used to write down most of his songs, including "Black Robes and Lawyers," which has just been released on iTunes.

"I was arrested for murder on August 26, 1981, for a crime I didn't commit," Dillon tells his audience as he starts strumming his guitar. "I was released on November 18, 2008. Thank you to the keepers of justice."

According to Dillon, justice prevailed when he was released from prison after 27 years. He is now on the Innocence Project of Florida's list of 13 prisoners exonerated by DNA evidence.

It was Dillon's life story and not his music that moved Grammy Award winning music producer Jim Tullio to invite Dillon to his Chicago studio to record the songs he wrote in prison.

"I was just blown away by this story," says Tullio, who learned about Dillon's wrongful incarceration and his dream to record an album.

"I just thought it was an injustice and I thought this guy deserves a break," recalls Tullio, adding that he did something he never does and reached out to Dillon.

"I said whatever you bring me I am sure I can help you make it better," Tullio remembers telling Dillon during their first conversation. Not caring if he had any real talent, Tullio arranged for Dillon to spend a couple of weeks in the studio.

Wrongly convicted man wants payment

Tullio expected to make a CD for Dillon to play while he was riding around in his truck. "I did this because I was compelled," says Tullio, "but when he came and I heard him sing I was just knocked out." Tullio says he quickly realized that Dillon's life story might attract an audience, but his voice would turn them into fans.

During those recording sessions, the talk often turned to Dillon's fight, not only for his freedom but also his continuing battle for compensation.

It was August 17, 1981, when James Dvorak was found murdered on a Florida beach. The beach was in an area Dillon frequented. The police questioned Dillon about the murder and eventually investigators charged him for Dvorak's death.

The 27 years Dillon spent behind bars tested his will to survive. "I contemplated suicide many, many times." He says that 12 years into his life sentence, he decided to let go of the anger. It was difficult for a man who eventually learned he would be paroled in 2043, when he would be in his 80s.

While in prison at Avon Park Correctional facility, Dillon helped develop a music program. He learned to play the guitar and sang with fellow inmates in a band.

Music was a main focus of Dillon's when in 2006 a law clerk asked him if he had ever had his DNA tested. That test would be the key to his freedom.

"In Bill Dillon's case, there was much evidence that pointed away from him having committed this crime," says Seth Miller of the Innocence Project of Florida, the group that helped secure Dillon's release.

At the time of his release, Dillon's time behind bars was longer than any other person exonerated in the United States, according to the Innocence Project. Dillon assumed that when he gained his freedom he would be compensated for the time he spent in prison.

"If you are releasing me from prison on DNA, for a crime I didn't commit, you should be handing me the money so I could get on with my life," says Dillon. That didn't happen and Dillon has been relying on the kindness of others.

Florida has a compensation law that pays $50,000 per year to those who are classified as wrongfully incarcerated. Dillon, like almost all the Innocence Project of Florida's 13 DNA cases, doesn't qualify for the money.

In order to receive compensation in Florida, an exonerated person must have "clean hands." This means the person cannot have a felony on record from before they were wrongfully imprisoned.

"When I was 19 years old I got caught with a Quaalude and a joint in my pocket with nine college kids coming from a bottle club at 4 o'clock in the morning," says Dillon. Dillon believes that arrest cost him more than $1.3 million from the state.

Dillon's efforts to get a claims bill passed through the Florida Legislature have been unsuccessful.

Earlier this year, Bram D.E. Canter, Florida Senate Special Master, released his final report to the Senate president. Canter noted that State Attorney Norman Wolfinger wrote a letter stating he did not think DNA testing exonerated Dillon.

Canter's final report also makes a reference to Brevard County Sheriff Deputy Thom Fair. Fair worked on the Dillon case. Now retired, the report notes that Fair continues to believe Dillon murdered Dvorak.

In his conclusion, Canter notes that his burden of proof is a "preponderance of the evidence" and recommends that Dillon be compensated for his years in prison. The report says, "There is no physical evidence linking Dillon to the victim or the crime scene and Dillon would probably not have been found guilty with the credible evidence available to the prosecutors."

As his attorneys continue to try to get his compensation bill passed by both the Florida House and Senate, Dillon continues to make music.

He dreams of having the ability to make money with his music. But Dillon says he is realistic about the odds of being able to support himself in the entertainment industry. "I am hoping," says Dillon. "I would love it but I just don't know."

What Dillon does know is that his first album is slated for release this summer and he is already thinking about what he is going to write about in his next musical endeavor.

"I want to put the soul and feeling I have into songs of everyday life," says Dillon. "I see the world with baby eyes. I don't see the world like you see the world because I just started living in it."