Posts Tagged ‘William Dillon’

My Experience at Innocence Project of Florida’s 2016 Steppin’ Out Spring Gala

Alejandra de la Fuente — June 16, 2016 @ 1:00 PM — Comments (0)

Innocence Project of Florida’s annual Steppin’ Out Spring Gala on May 12 was a huge success this year. The major fundraising event for the project generated over $70,000 in funds that will go towards litigation efforts in IPF’s fight to free the wrongfully convicted in Florida prisons.

Serving as a Criminal Justice Communications Intern at IPF since the beginning of January 2016, I was looking forward to the event in the months leading up to it for several reasons. I used to complain about having to write papers for classes, but in my position as an intern, I research topics related to wrongful conviction and write blog posts and articles about them throughout the day. I came to love something I once groaned about because through writing countless pieces about the issue of wrongful conviction in this country, not only have I greatly improved my writing skills, but I have also learned so much about the topic and have a newfound admiration for the innocence movement. I have learned about hundreds of exonerees and read their tragic stories of how the criminal justice system literally took their lives away from them, and in turn have written a number of articles about a handful of them. I knew that I would finally be able to meet a few of the courageous men I had written about at Steppin’ Out, which is one of the main reasons I was quick to volunteer for and attend the event.

I think I speak for the majority of the innocence movement when I say that we look at exonerees as celebrities, on par with the likes of any famous movie or sports star. But unlike most Hollywood A-listers, exonerees did not earn their fame by starring in movies or being really good at a sport; they earned it solely through their courage and determination to prove their innocence—no matter how long it took. After Netflix released Making a Murderer last December, Steven Avery became a household name practically overnight. The nation, and now even the world, was astonished and disgusted with the injustices Avery had experienced. And while his story finally brought the long-time issue of wrongful conviction to widespread public attention, Avery’s story is just one of thousands. Take, for example, James Bain, who was exonerated in 2009 with the help of IPF after spending 35 years in prison for a crime that he did not commit. Thirty-five years. To put that into perspective, since James went to prison in 1974 and before his release, the text message was invented, terrorists attacked our country on 9/11, and Americans elected the nation’s first African American president. At the time of his release, James had served the most time wrongfully incarcerated of all the DNA exonerees across the country.

James was just one of the few exonerees that attended Steppin’ Out and that I had the pleasure of briefly meeting. Also in attendance was Orlando Boquete, who I was particularly excited to meet because of all the great things I had heard about him through staff members at IPF. Orlando actually managed to escape from his wrongful conviction twice, and although that makes him ineligible for compensation, he was able to fulfill his dream of becoming a U.S. naturalized citizen on March 27, 2015. The moment Orlando walked into the gala event, he lit up the entire room with his positive, outgoing, and warm presence. To have such a great attitude and outlook despite everything he has been through is truly amazing. Other Florida exonerees also in attendance included Seth Penalver, who was exonerated from death row in 2012, and William Dillon and Derrick Williams, who were exonerated through the efforts of IPF.

Some of the wrongfully convicted from other states also attended Steppin’ Out, including Clay Chabot and Richard Rosario. I was especially excited about meeting Richard, who actually had his conviction overturned recently on March 23. A series about Richard’s story was even featured on Dateline NBC. Having written a couple blog posts about him due to his recent release from prison and the series about him, it was surprising to see him at the event, but just as exciting nonetheless. Watching all of the exonerees interact with each other was such a unique experience, and it was truly rewarding to observe first-hand a bond they share that only they can understand.

Another main reason I was excited to attend Steppin’ Out was because Sister Helen Prejean was being honored at the event. I first have to thank Gordon Waldo, whose capital punishment class I took during my Spring 2015 semester at the Florida State University. Within the first couple weeks of class, he showed us the film Dead Man Walking, in which Susan Sarandon stars as Sister Helen, and depicts her first time serving as a spiritual advisor for an inmate on death row. Later on in the semester, Mr. Waldo dedicated an entire section of the course to innocent people awaiting the death penalty and showed us a few different films about the wrongfully convicted and the innocence movement. His capital punishment class is where I learned that someone could go to jail for a crime they did not commit, and also where I learned about innocence projects and the amazing pro-bono work that they do to free the wrongfully convicted. Had it not been for Mr. Waldo’s class, I may not have known about the issue of wrongful conviction and the innocence movement until much later, and perhaps I would have never applied to be an intern at IPF. Therefore, I credit the irreplaceable and incredible experience I have had interning at IPF to Mr. Waldo. He actually attended Steppin’ Out, and I was extremely happy for him that he was able to meet the remarkable woman whose movie he has shown in his capital punishment class for several years.

Often called the “Mother Teresa of Death Row,” Sister Helen is known for her extensive work in advocating against the death penalty, and continues to touch lives with her selfless passion for helping others. She is one of the nicest, most humble, and welcoming human beings I have ever had the pleasure of meeting, and to even be in her presence was truly an honor. Upon accepting her Talbot “Sandy” D’Alemberte Commitment to Justice Award, Sister Helen delivered a speech that left not a single dry eye in the room. Listening to her stories and experiences was inspiring and perhaps even life changing, and it seems almost impossible that one person could be so selfless and caring. One part of her speech in particular resonated with me. After commending the exonerees for their bravery and relentless efforts to prove their innocence and how happy they must be now that they are finally free again, Sister Helen asked, “but what about the people advocating and fighting for them and the people working at innocence projects?” She went on to tell the exonerees and other patrons in attendance to imagine how great the lawyers and other members of innocence organizations must feel, knowing that their efforts to free the wrongfully convicted were worth it because they were victorious. Although I am just an intern and play no direct role in litigating cases or securing exonerations, I think that even one more person who learns more about the criminal justice system, necessary reforms, and especially the problem of wrongful convictions can make a difference. In addition to my internship at IPF, Sister Helen’s speech inspired me to want to remain an active member in the innocence movement and to one day hopefully make a difference—no matter how small—in at least one person’s life.

Overall, to sum up my first experience at the annual IPF Steppin’ Out Spring 2016 Gala, it was humbling, to say the least.

Here are a few photos from the event:

Exonerees Orlando Boquete and Richard Rosario

Exonerees Orlando Boquete and Richard Rosario

Sister Helen Prejean

Sister Helen Prejean

From left to right: IPF Executive Director Seth Miller, exoneree James Bain, exoneree Orlando Boquete, IPF Staff Attorney Melissa Montle, exoneree William Dillon, IPF Assistant Director Toni Shrewsbury, exoneree Clay Chabot, Sister Helen Prejean, IPF Director of Social Services Anthony Scott, death row exoneree Seth Penalver, exoneree Richard Rosario, exoneree Derrick Williams, IPF Investigator Jennie Nepstad

From left to right: IPF Executive Director Seth Miller, exoneree James Bain, exoneree Orlando Boquete, IPF Staff Attorney Melissa Montle, exoneree William Dillon, IPF Assistant Director Toni Shrewsbury, wrongfully convicted Clay Chabot, Sister Helen Prejean, IPF Director of Social Services Anthony Scott, death row exoneree Seth Penalver, wrongfully convicted Richard Rosario, exoneree Derrick Williams, and IPF Staff Investigator Jennie Nepstad

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Life After Exoneration: What’s next?

Alejandra de la Fuente — January 28, 2014 @ 2:09 PM — Comments (1)

It’s safe to say that one of the best days of the lives of a wrongfully convicted person is the day that they are finally free from prison after serving time for crimes they did not commit. However, these men and women who had once thought their lives were over get a major news flash the moment they are set free. What do they do next?

If you are like Nicole Harris, a female exoneree from the greater Chicago area, you spend time with your teenage son, who was just 5 years old at the time of conviction, and apply to graduate school. You even might plan that long awaited trip to New York City. That is what Harris is doing, as she says it is the one place she has always wanted to go.

Maybe you are Brian Banks, who at the time of his conviction was being recruited by USC and Pete Caroll to play big- time college football. After five years in prison, what would you do if you were Banks? Why, play more football, of course. Since being exonerated almost two years ago, Brian has tried out for the Atlanta Falcons, making it to the next final cut before the 52-person team. He runs a twitter account and has done all he can to do what he has always wanted to do.


If you are Bill Dillon, you have 27 years of life to make up; you record an album, and sing the national anthem at the Tampa Bay Ray’s baseball game. Dillon spent over half of his life behind bars, and he is now working to make up for lost time. He plays in a band, loves Deep Purple, and has spent the last 5 years getting used to the major change in technology since 1981 when he was convicted.

IPF board member and exoneree, William Michael Dillon performed two songs about his wrongful conviction.

IPF board member and exoneree, William Michael Dillon performed two songs about his wrongful conviction.

The stories of the exonerated are some of the most powerful out there. They were taken from their families, their dreams, their life plans, and put in prison for crimes they did not commit. Now, trying to get back to ‘normal’ life, it is not always the easiest thing to pick up where they left off. With that being said, many of those who have been wrongfully convicted restore in the rest of us hope, even when we may be in a place where no hope comes from at all.

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Father’s Day

Alejandra de la Fuente — June 14, 2013 @ 1:06 PM — Comments (1)

As the son of a single mother, Father’s Day is different for me. It is also different for the children of the wrongfully imprisoned. Like most Father’s Days I will be presenting my mom with a card that reads “Happy Father’s Day,” and a bouquet of flowers that express the love and appreciation I have for her. It, however, is not for the reasons you may think. My father passed away when I was one year old and my mother raised me to be the man that I am today.

A situation like mine has no one to blame because the circumstances leading up to my father’s death were completely out of human control.  But what about the children whose lives are impacted every day by the yearning for a father who has been imprisoned for a crime he did not commit?

This Sunday as we wake and celebrate Father’s Day with elaborate gifts, great food, and the men who have been father figures in our lives, take a moment to reflect on the countless children who will not being able to wish their daddy a happy Father’s Day or the men whose chance to have children of their own was stolen.

Think of men like William Dillon, a man who spent 27.5 years in prison before his exoneration, who had the opportunity to start a family of his own ripped away from him due to a eyewitness misidentification and jailhouse snitch among other things. This Father’s Day, think of men like Luis Diaz, who while serving a life sentenced missed the chance to create memories with his three children for 26 long years. This Father’s Day we should think of the innocent men serving time for crimes they did not commit, but we should also think of the innocent children who are missing out at a chance to wish their dad a Happy Father’s Day.


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Post Exoneration: The Rarity of Success after Freedom

Alejandra de la Fuente — June 13, 2013 @ 11:53 AM — Comments (2)

In the U.S., more than 1,000 people have been exonerated for crimes they did not commit, 308 of those have been through post conviction DNA testing. These individuals, who on average spent 13.6 years in prison, are released into a society after their exoneration. Some find success in the ever changing world we live in, but many can not shake the demons linked to the wrongful conviction.

Not all DNA exonerees are as lucky as Jeffrey Deskovic, a New York man who spent 16 years in prison for rape and murder, who is now celebrating a turning-point in his life after returning to school and acquiring a master’s degree in criminal justice.

Deskovic says that despite nonexistent DNA evidence linking him to the murder, the police got him to confess after a seven-and-a-half-hour interrogation with no attorney present, his parents unaware of his whereabouts and no food. Deskovic, who was 16 at the time, maintained his innocence after his conviction and fought for his freedom with the help of the Innocence Project. Deskovic was released in 2006 and used a portion of his $8 million settlement to establish the Jeffrey Deskovic Foundation for Justice.

Exoneration and wrongful conviction stories are heavily publicized in the news, but not many cover the success and hardships of said individuals after their exoneration and after the cameras have stopped rolling and the buzz of the latest story has died down. Brian Banks, a man who was convicted of rape at age 16, and spent five years in prison and five years on probation before being exonerated, is getting a second chance at his dream of being an NFL professional football player. His story will forever be immortalized throughout the Innocence Network and throughout the world.

With the help of the California Innocence Project, Banks, whose accuser admitted on tape countless times that she fabricated the rape allegation against Banks, was able to get his conviction overturned and now will get a chance to win a coveted roster spot and maybe even a starting nod as linebacker for the Atlanta Falcons.

But graduate degrees and NFL dreams come true are a rarity when discussing victims of wrongful conviction and incarceration, and many are incapable of getting a house, a car and even a job years after their release.

Virginia LeFever, an Ohio women who was convicted of killing her husband in 1990, found it easier to re-enroll in college than it was for her to obtain a job. One would think that since LeFever was exonerated and her record was sealed  that it would be quite easy for her to acquire a proper job seeing as she was qualified, but that was not the case.

LeFever suffered great difficulty trying to find work due to her criminal record showing up every time a potential employer performed a background check. She also had to overcome difficulties getting her nursing license fully reinstated, but now that she has her degree and license she hopes to find a decent job that will provide her financial security. Like most wrongfully convicted exonerees the wait has been a long one.

One would hope that after exoneration the lives of these victims would return to normal. However, a study performed by the Life After Exoneration Program found that:

  • Half of exonerees are living with family
  • 2 in 3 are not financially independent
  • 1 in 3 lose custody of their children
  • 1 out of 4 suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

All formerly incarcerated people face similar barriers. Most of the world treats exonerees like anyone else with a criminal record:

  • Both groups are chronically underemployed.
  • Both groups have difficulty accessing routine government services.
  • Both groups are routinely denied the right to vote, live in public housing, get food stamps, or access college loans.

After being wrongfully convicted, and for some spending over a decade in prison, exonerees are looking for compensation as they rightfully should. However, statutes providing compensation for these innocent people are only in place in 27 states, including Washington D.C. and the majority of the these laws undercompensate for the trauma endured by the exoneree.

Roughly about one-third of the people exonerated after proving their innocence have not been compensated. In the states where there are no compensation laws, individuals must file civil lawsuits or wait for the legislature to consider a private bill on their behalf. After completing one strenuous court battle, exonerees are forced into another as they try and obtain the funding necessary to re-establish themselves in society.

Florida exoneree, William Dillon, who spent 27.5 years in prison for a crime he did not commit, is one of the few Florida exonerees who has been compensated.  In early 2012, Gov. Rick Scott signed the bill that paid Dillon $1.35 million, while also providing him a public apology on behalf of the State of Florida, finally shutting the door on a case that has been going on for more than 30 years.

Unlike LeFever and countless others, Dillon has been blessed and has managed to forge a successful music career for himself after being exonerated. He has managed to turn his horrific story into heart wrenching songs about the struggles of his wrongful conviction. He also serves on the board of directors for the Innocence Project of Florida. He is truly one of the lucky ones.

Now that we are cognizant of the great success of a few exonerees, we must also keep the innocents who are struggling to stay afloat in our thoughts. Now that the truth about post exoneration struggles is apparent and the rose-colored glasses are off, we must do our part to ensure that innocent people who were wrongfully convicted are set free, compensated for their time spent in prison, and given the proper chance to secure a steady financial future.


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MAYDAY: A Call of the Innocent

Alejandra de la Fuente — May 21, 2013 @ 3:20 PM — Comments (0)

Mayday, mayday, mayday!

This universal call is used to signal and aid individuals who are in distress and seeking assistance. The term is mainly used by marines and aviators; however, in some countries it is also used by law enforcement, fire departments and transportation groups.

The mayday call, which originated in the early 1920s, comes from the French words “venez m’iader,” which means “come and help me.” After a mayday call is given and if there is no response from the coast guard or any person designated to assist within two minutes, any person who hears the call for distress is required to perform a mayday relay, which is a call by one vessel on behalf of another.

IPF has vigorously worked for 10 years to aid persons in distress as a result of wrongful convictions. Exonerees such as, Orlando Boquete, William Dillon and Derrick Williams, to name a few, are perfect examples of successful mayday relays.

The United States of America prides itself on having the best criminal justice system in the world. Sadly it has been proven time and time again that the system is not immune to human error and in some cases, willful misconduct by prosecutors and law enforcement, and outright lies by jailhouse snitches. An innocent person, generally, believes that the justice system will do nothing but protect them, and do its best to eradicate the actual criminals.

Boquete, Dillon and Williams, collectively, spent 58 years in prison before their “mayday calls” were answered. Like all exonerees, Dillon made multiple cries for help; “to anyone who might listen” is how Dillon describes his desperate pleas. Finally with the help of IPF and assistant public defender Mike Pirolo, DNA testing on a key piece of evidence proved that Dillon was innocent. Dillon’s distress calls were finally answered after more than 27 years.

Williams’ sister-in-law took the first step in successfully performing a mayday relay on his behalf. With the help of IPF, Williams was finally able to go home after serving 18 years in prison.

Later this week Orlando will celebrate the 7th anniversary of his exoneration – the day his call for help was answered.

Place yourself in the shoes of Boquete, Dillon, or Williams – imagine spending years locked away from loved ones, family and friends; imagine not being able to fulfill the goals you mapped out for yourself; imagine not being able to make choices of what to eat and where to go. The small things we take for granted everyday are the things they missed, because the system failed and they were convicted of crimes they did not commit.

Because prosecutors, judges, and the State have turned their backs and ignore the cries of the innocent, IPF will continue to respond to mayday calls from those in Florida’s prisons.

It is everyone’s obligation to assist after hearing a mayday call, a cry from the wrongfully convicted, a cry that will prove to be the first step in unlocking the truth. Your assistance can be in many forms – share this post, tell others about IFP and our work, and provide financial support so we can bring home the innocent still in prison.

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“I loved the parties and chasing the pretty girls.”

Alejandra de la Fuente — January 18, 2013 @ 4:24 PM — Comments (0)

Being young is a time for mistakes and successes along with a carefree attitude; no one should ever have this experience taken from them, especially when it involves a wrongful conviction. Unfortunately many people have suffered at the hands of an imperfect criminal justice system. Not only have these wrongful convictions affected the lives of these men and women, but also their families as well as those of us who care about the justice system. William Dillon and James Bain are only 2 of 302 people who have been exonerated using DNA testing nationwide; these men featured in Unlock the Truth are incredible human beings who faced overwhelming odds and came out of prison grateful rather than bitter.

If you have never watched Unlock the Truth, please take the time now.

My personal reaction to Unlock the Truth is difficult to explain. As a senior in college, I am 21 years old with much ahead of me in the coming years. It continually rings in my head, “I loved the parties and chasing the pretty girls.” This should have been the only worry in William Dillon’s mind; yet he was faced with a life sentence for a murder he did not commit at the young age of 22. James Bain was only 19 when he was wrongfully convicted of rape and kidnapping; the lives of these young men were taken away for crimes neither of them committed.

I think about the dilemmas I face in my life and how trivial each and every one is compared to what William and James faced when they were my age. I can’t imagine the confusion, the anger or the hopelessness. The accounts of their incarceration as well as the toll it took on their families was the most emotional part of Unlock the Truth. William Dillon’s father questions, “What did I do wrong as a dad?” just as James Bain’s sister claims, “Every time we went to see him, I would go but I didn’t want to go because I knew he wasn’t coming back.” The struggle and strife these families endured is painful and understanding the unnecessary pain is challenging. Fortunately these families were reunited after decades lost.

Organizations such as the Innocence Project of Florida and all of the innocence projects around the world give the wrongfully convicted hope. Dillon repeats, in his account, as tears roll down his face, “I thank them very much because without them, it won’t happen, it won’t happen, it won’t happen.”

The process of exoneration is a long and daunting task; however without the persistence and the perseverance of those who working to correct these injustices, Dillon is right – “it just won’t happen.” From attorneys and legal interns to volunteers and fundraisers, every person has the ability to help unlock the truth for the wrongfully imprisoned.

Let us know what you thought after watching Unlock the Truth.

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Update: Dillon’s Story Told on TV, 3 Hearings & Change a Life

Alejandra de la Fuente — December 10, 2012 @ 2:22 PM — Comments (2)

William Michael Dillon’s wrongful conviction story will be told on Investigation Discovery’s “I Didn’t Do It“, a new series that explores wrongful conviction cases. This episode, “Battered on a Beach”, will debut on Monday, December 10, 2012, at 9 p.m. EST.

In this video, Seth Miller, IPF Executive Director, apprises everyone of IPF’s on-going activities. In addition to discussing the “I Didn’t Do It” episode about William, he also gives a brief litigation update. We have three hearings in ten days in December to get post-conviction DNA testing. Seth explains that post-conviction DNA testing is not automatically granted by the State. Seth also asks for your help to change a life by making a year-end gift.

Your support will change the life of an innocent person languishing in prison; it will change the life of someone who has been proven innocent and released, and it will change a life by helping reform the criminal justice system to prevent future wrongful convictions.

We hope your holidays are safe, happy and healthy.

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A Week of Outreach

Alejandra de la Fuente — October 26, 2012 @ 11:26 AM — Comments (0)

Spreading awareness about IPF and wrongful convictions is crucial in the fight against injustices found in the legal system. A community that is knowledgeable about wrongful convictions is one that will be able to recognize the causes, effects and the harm they cause to innocent persons and society. For this reason IPF spent the week of the October 14th, spreading awareness about our project throughout Florida.

On the 16th Jackie Pugh, James Bain and Robert Cromwell visited Florida Southern College in Lakeland. Pugh, IPF’s development coordinator,  spoke to an audience of over 60 people about IPF and the work that we do.

Cromwell, an IPF board member and retired FBI Special Agent in Charge, spoke about reforms that are necessary to correct two of the causes of wrongful convictions – witness misidentification and false confessions .

“What can I do about yesterday? I can only live for today,” James Bain said to the audience filled with students, professors and community members.

He spent an hour answering questions that revealed after spending 35 years in prison, he has done nothing more than move forward with his life. He shared with the audience how he met his wife and being a father to a six month old son named James Jr.

A similar presentation was held at Rollins College in Winter Park on Oct. 17th. Pugh introduced IPF to the audience. She was accompanied by William Dillon who gave the guests a first hand account of his wrongful conviction and how his exoneration has affected his life.

Our last stop was at Stetson University in DeLand Fla on the 19th. IPF was invited by the Bonner Program to give a presentation.

Photos of James Bain at Florida Southern via

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William Michael Dillon on Fox and Friends

Seth — July 31, 2012 @ 8:40 AM — Comments (1)

Florida exoneree made national headlines this month when he sang the National Anthem at a Tampa Bay Rays game.  This weekend he appeared on the Fox and Friends morning show.  You can check out his appearance here.


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William Dillon’s national anthem rendition gets worldwide coverage

Alejandra de la Fuente — July 19, 2012 @ 4:06 PM — Comments (0)

It was awesome to see William (Bill) Dillon sing the “Star-spangled Banner” (click for video) before the Tampa Bay Rays’ baseball game last night. IPF staff, interns, former interns, board members and their families turned out to support William in this amazing opportunity. For him personally, it represented and upheld many values and talents.

Bill was a few days shy of his second try-out with the Detroit Tigers when he was questioned and eventually arrested for a murder that DNA testing years later proved he did not commit. His other promising talents included working as carpenter and a mechanic in a bowling alley.

Bill is also an artist. He has been singing since he was a little boy. His songwriting and singing abilities garnered national attention with the release of his first album, Black Robes and Lawyers. Therefore, singing before a baseball game was the ultimate mesh of his talents.

(L to R) Our most recent exoneree, Derrick Williams, with William Dillon and IPF board member Bob Cromwell, who was instrumental in connecting William Dillon with the Rays organization.

Fox News asked Bill how he felt prior to taking the field to sing and throw the first pitch: “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.”

Wearing the shirt he wore on the first day of freedom, Bill sang the nation’s song that celebrates its own freedom. By doing so, he demonstrated his own gratefulness for freedom with his renewed trust in the country.

ABC News quoted Bill saying, “I firmly believed in the justice system….I was so young and naive. It wasn’t until I was in prison that I realized I was stuck.”

But Bill now wishes to represent the possibilities of America: “I firmly believe in freedom and I believe America stands for freedom. I’m a symbol of hope that things can happen even if you lose hope you have to keep going on. All they have to do is look at my story. You can’t give up.”

IPF staff and interns attended to support

Additional coverage of Bill’s story can be found at the Huffington Post, Fox News, The American Bar Journal and the Daily Mail.

You can read more in-depth about his conviction and exoneration on his case profile page.

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