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Greg Wilhoit: The story of an innocent man

Mar 17, 2010

by Lisa Rea

I have a friend whose name is Greg Wilhoit. His story is a remarkable one. He is an exoneree who was freed from death row in Oklahoma after having served time for a crime he did not commit. He was convicted and sent to death row for the killing of his wife. The only incriminating "evidence" which convicted Greg Wilhoit was teeth marks found on the victim's body. Dental "experts" said the teeth marks matched Greg's.

His story is on the website of The Journey of Hope:   Greg is active with the Journey, as are many exonerees, as he tells his story of America's broken criminal justice system.

Greg was fully exonerated and released from prison in 1993. Best seller author, and former trial attorney, John Grisham writes about Ron Williamson and Greg Wilhoit in his excellent book The Innocent Man (Bantam Dell; 2006). Williamson and Wilhoit were cell mates on Oklahoma's death row and became best friends. Both were innocent men.

Life has not been easy for Greg since his release. But life is often not easy for those who have suffered such miscarriages of justice. Though exonerated the state of Oklahoma has refused to compensate Greg for the five years he spent on death row. However, there was an encouraging update about his case in an Oklahoma newspaper at the end of 2009.  

The Oklahoma Supreme Court agrees that Wilhoit 's case has merit as he and his family have pressed on seeking compensation for his years of incarceration. However, Greg Wilhoit will need a pardon from the Governor for a crime he did not commit in order to be eligible for state compensation under a state law passed in 2003. The link to the Oklahoma paper explains this tortured reasoning.

The facts are bleak for the wrongfully convicted nationwide in the U.S.  According to the Innocence Project, a U.S. based nonprofit that works to free innocent men and women from prison, of the 240 people (to date) exonerated through DNA testing nationwide 40% have received no form of assistance after their release. (December 2009 Innocent Project report)  The report states that 23 states in the U.S. do not offer any compensation to the exonerated. This would be the case of Greg Wilhoit.

Today Greg Wilhoit is in a California hospital struggling for his life. He has battled many things since 1993 including being hit by a car as he rode his bicycle in the summer of 2009. Will another miracle save him? I pray for that miracle as do all his many friends around the country, many exonerees themselves but many advocates for systemic justice reform. But as prayers are needed for Greg there is also a cry for justice for him and others like him who deserve compensation for crimes they never committed. They also need services to help them get back on their feet once released. Not surprisingly, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is common among this growing group of exonerees. Fair compensation for the years lost plus other assistance as needed (e.g. counseling, drug and alcohol treatment, and other re-entry services) must be provided. It is the least we can do as a civil society. Then, God wiling, we will learn that convicting an innocent man to prison has its consequences.

In a system of justice based on restorative justice principles offenders are held accountable for their actions. Victims, or victims' family members and communities, are restored as much as possible. In the cases of those wrongfully convicted what happens to the victim (or the victim's family) when an innocent man is convicted? Where is the real offender? Justice has been denied and denied twice. In addition, who holds the prosecuting attorney, and the legal system, accountable after an innocent man is exonerated?  I believe that is the role of a society that believes that justice is achievable. Real justice should not be denied any human being.

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Bill Pelke
Bill Pelke says:
Mar 06, 2010 12:46 AM

God bless Greg Wilhoit

Ron Keine
Ron Keine says:
Mar 06, 2010 12:46 AM

This is an excellent article. It shows what happens when our justice system wrongfully and casually discards its mistakes after ruining the lives of these innocent people. Reentry life for these forgotten castoffs is as sad a story sometimes as the actual wrongful death row incarceration. Most of these exonorees were young at the onset of their ordeal. For years they sat, wasting away in a 6 X 9 cell, while other young men were getting an education, learning job skills, trades and building careers. Starting families and building their legacies. <br /> <br />When regular convict is released from prison he is on parole. With that parole comes a parole officer who helps with reentry. For parolees there is help with food, housing, employment, clothes and other services. For the innocent exonoree there is nothing. Flat out nothing. Many times they sneak him out the back gate of the prison to cloak him from the press.. He stands, facing the world with no money and just the clothes on his back. Many times with no place to go. I remember when we could not find a certain exonoree we wanted to contact because there was no street address for the bridge he lived under. His parents had passed away and that wife or girlfriend deserted him years ago. He has PTSD of epic perportions from years on the row watching that damm calendar. His fear heightens daily as his life span shortens with every time he puts another X in a numbered square. . He knows the date when they plan to snuff out his life. All the while his cries of innocence are lost in the din of the cell block. <br /> <br />Now as an exonoree he has to find work but has nothing to offer. He has to vie with teenagers to flip burgers at a fast food place. He has no self esteem. No sense of worth.He is tainted merchandise. Even if he does find a job he is qualified to do, He can’t explain all those missing years on the job application. Is there any wonder why some of these men turn to drugs and alcohol? Is there any wonder why some of them commit suicide?

Karen Torley
Karen Torley says:
Mar 06, 2010 01:01 PM

I hope and Pray that Greg gets well really soon. My thoughts and prayers are with him, his family and his friends. <br /> <br />I am sending this message from Glasgow in Bonnie Scotland <br /> <br />Hugs to Greg and please get well soon x <br /> <br /> <br /> <br />“I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. . Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. To remain silent and indifferent is the greatest sin of all... &quot; Elie Wiesel Nobel Prize for Peace in 1986.

Mary Gelonek
Mary Gelonek says:
Mar 07, 2010 11:37 AM

I met his sister in ICU at Mercy in Sacramento on Feb. 25th. We asked what was going on with her situation as our rather large family was with our brother in law who passed the next evening. She told us her brother had been unjustly convicted of his ex-wife's murder and asked is we had ever read The Innocent Man. I told her I was just reading it but found it so disturbing that I was having trouble getting throught it. I recognized Greg and felt so badly that the injustice continues. Today is March 6th, and I just finished the book. What a travesty to Greg and the other young men. Please convey my thoughts and prayers to her and the family. I live in the Sacramento area, so if there is any assistance I might be able to provide, please let me know.

Marietta Jaeger Lane
Marietta Jaeger Lane says:
Mar 08, 2010 09:50 AM

How can the US claim to call itself a moral, civilized society and a &quot;world leader&quot; when we all too often incarcerate innocent people just so the prosecutor can get another notch on his belt or that the state can close its books on a bothersome crime? We take prime years and freedom from these innocents, then cast them out on the street with only their shower sandals on their feet and the uniform they happen to be wearing that day. Not a penny in their pockets, miles and miles from their homes (if they are still welcome there) and a heart broken and a mind messed up from being forced to live in the brutality of death row for way too many years. We need some new laws that not only generously recompenses each exoneree, pays for counseling, provides the wherewithall whereby the exoneree can get immediate housing,and also holds responsible, in some concrete way, the &quot;justice system&quot; personnel who committed this travesty in the first place. So sadly, there are too many exonerees whose lives, like Greg's, continue <br />to exact more suffering from them, long after they are freed from death row. I second Bill Pelke's &quot;God bless Greg Wilhoit!&quot;.

Lisa Rea
Lisa Rea says:
Mar 08, 2010 07:29 PM

I was so glad to see these excellent comments after my blog entry on the story of Greg Wilhoit. What many do not know is that two of the comments are written by those severely affected (injured) by crime. Marietta Jaeger Lane's young daughter was kidnapped and murdered. Ron Keine is an exoneree who was also on death row (in New Mexico)for a crime he did not commit. Each has a story to tell and each is working daily to change a justice system that is broken. <br /> <br />I am in agreement with Marietta who suggests that laws should be changed to address miscarriages of justice in the U.S. and abroad. As I said in my entry those who send innocent people to prison, and often death row, for crimes they did not commit should be held accountable once the innocent person is exonerated. Rarely do we see that. Often prosecutors, and other involved, walk away from these cases having not been affected in any way (professionally). They are still practicing law. They are still actively a part of our justice system. <br /> <br />Greg Wilhoit's sister Nancy (interviewed in the Oklahoma news story I linked on the entry) said that Greg deserved an apology. Each exoneree is owed an apology as well as the financial compensation (restitution)for the lost years they spent in prison. How do you measure those years lost? For Greg, his remaining years have reflected the deep injury of a broken justice system. <br /> <br />This is restorative justice at work, perhaps to some, in a new way. And remember, there are still victims (of the original crime) waiting for justice. What happens to them and their cases. We have much work to do. As we remember to pray for men like Greg Wilhoit, which I do, we also must act. <br /> <br />Lisa Rea <br /> <br />

Tony Calig
Tony Calig says:
Mar 08, 2010 09:50 PM

As I read this brief summary regarding the plight Mr. Wilhoit has endured, several key components come readily to mind that affected his case and others. First of all, one has to question the quality of police work and rush to judgment without sufficient evidence. Secondly, the willingness of the district attorney not only to pursue a conviction in the light of the dubious evidence but the use of so called experts who are paid to take the stand with the understanding that a link is to be manufactured and presented to the jury as fact. Thirdly, the lack of any uniform compensation and restorative process for those who had been unjustly incarcerated upon their release. Finally, the safety of the community being placed in danger while a guilty party remains free perhaps to repeat their offenses. Obviously, citizens should demand accountability on all levels.

Mpagi Edward Edmary
Mpagi Edward Edmary says:
Mar 09, 2010 12:43 PM

some people think the death penalty is meant for criminals,that is wrong any body can be a victim of Wrongful conviction or death penalty.we should all join the abolition fight. <br />Edward -former death row inmate in Africa

Kimberly Cook
Kimberly Cook says:
Mar 09, 2010 08:35 PM

Thanks, Lisa, for an excellent column and for a humane understanding of Greg's situation. I've known Greg for years and he is a truly remarkable man in many ways. I hope people will also keep in mind that Greg's two daughters have also endured a difficult legacy as a consequence of this miscarriage of justice. Their mother was murdered when they were just 4 months old and 14 months old. Their father was wrongly arrested, tried, convicted, and condemned by the OK justice system's rush to judgment. Thanks to his attorney, Mark Barrett, Greg eventually was exonerated and released; though he still endured two more years on bond in OK. The ripple effect of this wrongful conviction is vast. Greg's dauthers grew up without their mother and without their father. Their foster family was good, thank heavens, but still they grew up with the stigma of their mother's murder being blamed on their father. Greg's parents also walked through a version of hell all their own in this mess. The state of OK has never offered an apology (that doesn't cost a dime), let alone provided compensation. <br /> <br />Greg's current medical situation is dire. I pray he will recover. He is an amazing man -- strong, funny, smart, devoted to his cause, making productive meaning out of the tragic events in his life, devoted to his daughters and his grandchildren, and an active participant in seeking justice for so many more. He is a gracious and delightful man. We need more from Greg. The state owes so much more to him, too. <br /> <br />Peace, Kim <br />

Nancy Vollertsen
Nancy Vollertsen says:
Mar 09, 2010 09:22 PM

Lisa, thank you so much for your thoughtful, inspiring article about my brother Greg Wilhoit and for faithfully visiting him and boosting his spirits. I appreciate so much all the other comments supporting Greg and our family. We absolutely feel all your prayers as we walk yet another difficult journey with him. His health situation is indeed dire and we are currently planning to leave Oklahoma tomorrow in a rented RV so we can bring him back home to be near his family. He is not going to want to come to Oklahoma (they did try to kill him after all) but unfortunately we have no choice. I know we're going to need everyones continued prayers for what I'm sure will be an &quot;interesting&quot; trip home! <br /> <br />We are so thankful for all the amazing friends we have made since we became active in the abolition movement. Please continue the fight so no one else will ever suffer as Greg, Ron and all the other exonorees have. America is just better than that. <br /> <br />

connie nash
connie nash says:
Mar 10, 2010 08:58 PM

For sure, Nancy, Greg and the family have our continued prayers as you take your beloved brother home for the loving care he will continue to get from his dear ones! <br /> <br />Having been with Greg in Texas, he began to feel deeply as if he were one of us - all of us - not just those who knew him before we were together for The Journey there. <br /> <br />I don't know if I've ever before met such a gifted speaker who was able to keep audience contact brilliantly through every single word and true story! (A person who &quot;walked&quot; his spirit of non-bitterness whether speaking or not.) <br /> <br />My prayer today - while you may still be enroute home - and throughout his adaption back to Oklahoma - is for daily health to return in many ways - including his awareness of his own rare gifts. <br /> <br />Plz tell him for Connie and others that these one in a million gifts he contains within his being are rich in healing powers. <br /> <br />These gifts - only Greg has to this degree - helped him survive death row. They helped him to have the energy and motivation to speak so effectively. We pray for God's help and Greg's own will to choose life wherever he is able. May he receive everything he needs - long enough - to renew his health and stamina and beyond. <br /> <br />And once again may he be among us after much rest and restoration - when the time is best for Greg. <br /> <br />We know you will continue to give him our love and well-wishing. <br /> <br />Please tell Greg he's ONE in a million and by now there may be close to that many who NEED his dear presence among us all -- somewhere in this hurting nation. <br /> <br />We are better because of his participation and voice -- All of us: family members, death row &quot;victims&quot; and activists. We are fuller and more directed. We have more to give because of the inspiration, humor, creativity, and goodwill only Greg can give. <br /> <br />Greg's true experience contains all the reasons why we must go on to fight the death penalty. <br /> <br />And he is blessed to have such family and friends!

Ellen Eggers
Ellen Eggers says:
Mar 14, 2010 12:27 AM

I met Greg almost 10 years ago, when I heard him speak at the Capitol. We were a huge group that had gathered to express our opposition to the death penalty. Greg was smart, funny, articulate, self-effacing. He was the last speaker, but the crowd listened to his every word. He started his talk joking about having a tooth missing, and looking like an &quot;Okie,&quot; which cracked everyone up. We became friends after that, and did many speaking engagements together, in classrooms, churches and gatherings around the Sacramento area. Greg has a heart of gold, and everyone who meets him loves him. He talks about the hardest day in his life being, not when his wife was murdered (horrible as it was), or even when he was found guilty of her murder (devastating as THAT was), but rather the day he had to visit orphanages, trying to decide what he would possibly do with his two baby daughters, after he was sent to death row. Few people have suffered those kinds of personal losses. And God only knows how many other people are sitting in prison, as Greg did, awaiting execution for a crime they did not commit. If there is one thing that we must all take away from Greg's story it is this: a civilized society has no business playing God. The rest of our international counterparts --all western demoncracies -- have abolished the death penalty long ago. As a tribute to Greg, we must carry on this work that he has given his life to. I would love it if Greg could recover from this, but most likely he will not. His family is taking him home right not, in a rented RV, so that he can be with his now grown daughters, and his little grandchildren, to be with him at this critical time. Greg, we Sacramentans will not forget you. You never stopped working for the cause. If this is your time brother, then I pray that you and Ronnie Williamson will somehow be reunited, embracing once again as survivors, but just barely, of Oklahoma's death row. Love you Greg, Ellen

Rachel L.
Rachel L. says:
Mar 14, 2010 12:27 AM

I had the pleasure and gift to travel around Virginia with Greg several years ago during the Journey of Hope and also spend time with him since then. <br /> <br />He is a charismatic, compelling speaker whose story needs to be told. <br /> <br />Greg Wilhoit is a good man with a heart of gold. My thoughts and prayers go out to him and his family during this time. <br /> <br />Love from Vermont.

Rick Halperin
Rick Halperin says:
Mar 19, 2010 10:45 AM

The story, saga, and tragedy of Greg Wilhoit is a plain example of why this country should abolish the death penalty, and do so immediately. <br /> <br />The flagrant miscarriage of justice....depriving an innocent individual of his liberty, torture him physically and psychologically with imprisonment and extermination, and then to finally free him without apology or compensation, is an ordeal that is almost beyond one's comprehension. Most of us will never have to endure such horror, and we can only shake our heads in disbelief when we hear of those who have survived the state's attempt to liquidate them. <br /> <br />What kind of country IS this? It is bad enough when we execute the guilty, the (profoundly) mentally ill, and in recent years, the mentally retarded and juvenile offenders. It is legal in the US to execute innocent people, and we have done so, and will do so again. Many, like Greg, have been fortunate enough to walk free after years of enduring the ultimate indignity <br />....incarceration for crimes never committed. <br /> <br />The first step towards reconciliation and real justice in this country will only begin when we recognize that there is no such thing as a lesser person, that no one, for ANY reason whatsoever, should be threatened with execution, and that those wrongfully incarcerated must be compensated in all ways possible for the assaults done to their liberty, dignity and human integrity. <br /> <br />Only by admitting our national wrongdoings and our national (and numerous) flaws can we hope to find the strength to be a nation of compassion, mercy, reconciliation and true justice. <br /> <br />Rick Halperin <br />Amnesty International, Texas; Texas Coalition to <br />Abolish the Death Penalty; and Director, Southern Methodist University Human Rights Education Program

Leslie Neale
Leslie Neale says:
Mar 19, 2010 11:07 PM

God cast mercy on us all for continuing to allow a justice system to prevail that is so out of balance with true restorative principles. We all ultimately suffer for that. Thank you, Lisa, for such an insightful and well written account of Greg Wilhoit's story and why the need to apply restorative justice principles in our criminal justice system as a whole. My prayers go out for Greg and his family.

paul provett
paul provett says:
Apr 26, 2010 11:02 AM

what an intriguing story it was to read, i know its to late for ron to get any real justice,as he has passed on but lets all hope and pray that the powers that be do the right thing for greg my thoughts and prayers go out to greg and his family hope he makes a speedy recovery and gets the justice he deserves

lisa rea
lisa rea says:
Apr 28, 2010 02:24 AM

Paul, it's good to see so many people like you care about those who have been victims of injustice, individuals like Ron Williamson and Greg Wilhoit. Like you I pray for Greg and his family. But I know that more than prayer is needed. <br /> <br />Exonerees who have been freed across the U.S., often due to DNA testing, know that they have to fight for compensation for the years they have spent in prison for crimes they never committed. I am convinced that those of us who support restorative jusice need to &quot;connect the dots&quot; and work to right the wrongs experienced by these individuals. <br /> <br />The &quot;powers that be&quot;, as you said, often do not do the right thing unless urged to do so by those of us who care about those who often have no rights. <br /> <br />We need speak up for systemic reform through restoraive justice. <br /> <br />Regards, <br />Lisa Rea <br />California

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