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article imageMan in Prison for 27 Years Because of Faulty Scent-Tracking Dog

By Chris Dade     Jul 31, 2009 in Crime
For over 25 years Bill Dillon sat in prison convicted of a murder he said that he did not commit. And for much of that time the authorities knew that the scent-tracking dog on whose "evidence" Dillon had been convicted was a fake.
In 1981 James Dvorak was viciously murdered, his body being found on Canova Beach, Eastern Florida with its lips peeled off. And Bill Dillon was the man arrested on suspicion of his murder.
The prosecution case against Mr Dillon initially revolved around a bloodied T-shirt which had been found, reports do not necessarily indicate where precisely it was found, and which they claimed had been worn by Mr Dvorak's killer.
DNA testing, which in this case would have gone a long way towards proving the innocence of the accused man, did not form a part of criminal investigations back in 1981. Therefore the prosecutors, who the Orlando Weekly said, in their expose of the case years later, already knew that the blood on the shirt did not belong to Mr Dvorak or Mr Dillon, had to find other means by which to guarantee a guilty verdict against the then 22-year-old Bill Dillon. Those other means turned out to be a man called John Preston and a German-Shepherd dog he had named "Harrass 2".
Preston and his dog had quite a reputation. On more than 100 occasions, reports CNN, juries had been persuaded to convict on account of the extraordinary scent-tracking ability of "Harrass 2". It was therefore no surprise when the jury in the trial of Bill Dillon was also convinced that the dog had indeed picked up Mr Dillon's scent in the place where Mr Dvorak's body had been found, a full eight days after the body was discovered and following a hurricane, and traced the scent to places Mr Dillon had been and items he had touched. They found Mr Dillon guilty and he was sent to prison. The dog's owner even claimed at the trial that "Harrass 2" could smell underwater, a claim tracking dog experts contacted by CNN have called "impossible".
But suspicions about "Harrass 2"'s extraordinary talent started to surface. In 1984 a judge decided to put the dog and his owner to the test. The test proved that "Harrass 2" could not follow a scent for even one hundred feet and more disturbingly had only tracked a scent successfully when his owner-handler had prior knowledge of the case being investigated.
In 1987 Preston, who died in 2008 without ever being charged in relation to any crimes he may have committed during his time as the handler of an expert scent-tracker, and his dog were finally discredited. Yet the Florida authorities never reviewed the trials in which they had testified and which may have led to wrongful convictions.
Cases such as that of Bill Dillon who did not become aware of the controversy surrounding the man and dog who had effectively sent him to prison until 2006.
Aided by the Innocence Project of Florida Mr Dillon set out to prove that he had been wrongfully convicted. And to that end the now common procedure of testing items for DNA was employed by his team. The first, and as it transpired, only item that was tested for DNA was the bloodied T-shirt which the prosecution team had touted as such vital evidence at the trial.
The tests on the T-shirt revealed that it contained three DNA profiles. One profile matched that of Mr Dvorak but the other two matched individuals who cannot be identified because the samples have degraded too much to compare them with the profiles held on the national DNA database. Crucially none of the profiles matched Mr Dillon.
Yet the state of Florida was still not persuaded that it had got the wrong man and Assistant State Attorney Wayne Holmes argued that testing other items related to the case, such as a pair of jeans, could produce a match with Mr Dillon's DNA profile. This is despite their insistence 26 years before that the T-shirt was the key to identifying who it was who killed James Dvorak.
In late 2008 a judge ordered that a re-trial take place on the basis of the new evidence and Bill Dillon was released on bond. When the state of Florida declined to hold a re-trial, Mr Dillon was finally granted his freedom on December 10 2008, having spent 27 years in total behind bars.
Mr Dillon is adamant that John Preston colluded with the Florida authorities to produce compelling evidence in cases that were otherwise too weak to secure a conviction and believes that money may have changed hands. It is an accusation that the Attorney General of Florida denies.
Looking at the summary of Mr Dillon's trial that can be found on the Innocence Project of Florida website, it is hard to imagine how he would have come to spend more than half his life in prison without the intervention of John Preston and "Harrass 2". Unfortunately, with the man who was happy to call himself a "scent -tracking expert" no longer with us, the real truth regarding his "exploits" will probably never be known.
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