- Associated Press - Saturday, December 5, 2015

MELBOURNE, Fla. (AP) - Sometimes there was some chicken. Mainly it was white rice and little bits of mystery meat, like most every other night.

Thanksgiving is not so special for those in prison. For those wrongfully incarcerated, trying to find something to be thankful for only adds to the nightmarish suffering.

It’s hard to believe that seven years have passed since that chilly November afternoon when William “Bill” Dillon walked down the long ramp from the Brevard County Jail and raised his hands in triumph. Just a few days later he would celebrate Thanksgiving with his extended family for the first time since his 1981 arrest, when he was wrongfully accused, then convicted of killing James Dvorak.

“Seven years. Isn’t it amazing?” he said recently from California. “It’s gone by like the wind, poof!”

It’s nothing like the 27 years he spent fending off one assault after another in some of Florida’s most notorious prisons while at the same time trying to prove his innocence.

“Time inside is slow and painful. That’s different time in there,” he said, his voice nearly a whisper. “It’s the same thing every day. I don’t know, it’s about turmoil and torture more than anything. Inside it’s really about survival first and then innocence later.”

He was both surviving and working on proving his innocence when I first met him. Wearing gray prison garb at Hardee Correctional Institution east of St. Petersburg, he told me his story. He was hopeful that the Innocence Project of Florida would be able to convince a judge to test key evidence in his case - like the shirt left behind by the killer - for DNA. He knew there was no way his genetic markers would be found anywhere.

That’s when he first told me what he wanted to do most if ever released - swim, immerse his entire body under water. There are so many things we take for granted. But for an innocent man behind bars? There are no baths, swimming pools or hot tubs in prison.

He just wanted the feeling of being in that silent, lonely, underwater world.

It would only be a matter of months before the science proved him right. He was granted a new trial before the state dropped all charges, saying it would be too difficult to prove the case all these years later. A year later, a Brevard County Sheriff’s Office investigation exonerated Dillon completely and identified four suspects - one of which was a perfect DNA match to the test results from the shirt.

Dillon would not be spending another Thanksgiving in prison.

“Thanksgiving is not anything special in there, of course not,” he said. “They don’t make it anything special.”

Amazingly, I’ve never heard Dillon utter a bitter word about either of the two men whose false testimony helped put him away or the ex-girlfriend - Donna Parrish - who changed her story multiple times and started a relationship with the lead investigator in the case.

John Preston, exposed later as a fraud, testified as an “expert” dog handler connecting Dillon to the murder scene. Jailhouse “snitch” Roger Dale Chapman testified that Dillon confessed the crime to him while awaiting trial in the county jail. For his effort, Chapman’s sexual battery case disappeared. He later recanted his testimony and in 2009 he apologized personally to Dillon.

The four men identified as suspects just a few years ago remain free even though one of the men told investigators what happened the night Dvorak was killed at Canova Beach. A special prosecutor looked at the case but the statute of limitations had run out on just about everything except a first-degree murder charge. And prosecutors decided there just wasn’t enough there to make that stick.

Justice was not only blind but absent in this case, for all involved: Dillon, Dvorak’s family and the four men responsible.

Still, seven blink-of-an-eye years after waking from the nightmare, Dillon has found plenty to be thankful for. Near the top of that list is his music. Having taught himself the guitar in prison, he is writing, recording and performing his songs that range from patriotic to the deeply personal torment he suffered in prison.

The Satellite Beach man calls California home right now but spends most of his time traveling and giving motivational talks, sharing his story of hope with anyone who will listen.

“I want people to know I went through an incredible journey,” he said, adding that he never lost hope the truth would come out. “I let people know how this can happen and how people can survive and continue to survive. You just have to work for it and never give up. Don’t fall down and lay down, keep going.”

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Information from: Florida Today (Melbourne, Fla.), https://www.floridatoday.com

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