While serving 27 years in prison for a murder he didn't commit, William Dillon never thought he'd hear the crack of a bat again, much less sing the national anthem at a big league ballpark. Yet that's exactly what the con-turned-crooner did Wednesday night in Tampa, Fla.
Dillon, who was freed in 2008 after being wrongfully imprisoned for a brutal 1981 murder in Florida's Brevard County, belted out "The Star Spangled Banner" at Tropicana Field before the Rays took on the Cleveland Indians. For the budding country singer, who plays with a band made up of exonerated former prisoners, it was a high note in a saga with plenty of lows.
“To come from where I came from, without hope, to tonight, to be singing the national anthem … it’s just indescribable,” Dillon, 52, told FoxNews.com hours before the game. “It’s a miracle in its own right. I just hope it’s not so emotional for me that I can’t sing the song.”
In March, Florida Gov. Rick Scott personally apologized to Dillon and announced a $1.35 million compensation package for the man who was once scouted by the Detroit Tigers as a promising young pitcher. While Dillon admits that he felt angry and bitter at times while he was behind bars, he says he never lost his belief in America.
“I was behind bars for a lot of years and I was very angry because the system failed me and no one would listen," Dillon said. "Nobody was listening and no one believed me.”
After several denied appeals, Dillon, with the help of the Innocence Project of Florida, was ultimately cleared by DNA testing in the beating death of James Dvorak. Tests revealed that DNA from sweat on a bloody T-shirt — the key piece of evidence at trial — did not come from Dillon, but instead from another man. Separately, a jailhouse snitch recanted his testimony against Dillon, who was initially arrested and charged with first-degree murder after a scent-tracking dog linked Dillon to the crime scene.
Meanwhile, Dillon turned to music as a means of coping with his cruel fate. Crafting lyrics on toilet paper that he would sing in a gravelly voice that belies the rugged roads Dillon has traveled, he penned “Black Robes and Lawyers” in 1985. It's the title song from the CD he released last year. Other songs on the CD include the tracks “Passing Time” and “Only Freedom Matters” and “Lost in Time.”
“The whole basis of it is my wrongful incarceration and how I’m looking at life from the perspective of being behind bars,” Dillon said. “It was very, very torturous to the mind.”
Now living in Chapel Hill, N.C., with his girlfriend, Ellen Moscovitz, Dillon works on his music and plays dates with the band, most recently in Salt Lake City. He’s also working on his second full-length album and hopes his story will inspire others not to lose hope despite seemingly insurmountable odds.
“I lost hope but I put it back into myself,” he said. “I picked myself up and said, ‘No matter what, through it all, I’ve got to make it and survive.’ I went from being angry for 13, 14 years to deciding that I didn’t like who I was when I was angry, to deciding that I wanted to change my life.”
Dillon said he planned to wear the same “Not Guilty” shirt to the game that he wore when he walked out of prison on Nov. 12, 2008. He wears it proudly during most of his performances, he said.
“More than anything, it’ll be recognition of what they locked up a long time ago,” Dillon said of Wednesday’s anthem rendition. “It’s also a recognition of the many men and women who have been wrongfully convicted who are still behind bars.”
Rick Vaughn, vice president of communications for the Tampa Bay Rays, told FoxNews.com in an email that Dillon sang because his story "deserves attention" and because the team supports Project Innocence, a New York-based legal organization whose efforts have secured 292 post-conviction DNA exonerations in the United States since 1992. At the time of Dillon's release, his sentence was the longest time served by any of those individuals.
"Plus, he can sing," Vaughn's email read. "His audition tape passed our standards.”