Greg Wilhoit, whose story of wrongful conviction and incarceration on Oklahoma’s death row was told by John Grisham in his 2006 book “The Innocent Man,” now lives in Sacramento, Calif. He is on full Social Security Disability Insurance, and despite being acquitted in a second trial, has never received any compensation from the state of Oklahoma.
Wilhoit was convicted of the murder of his estranged wife in Osage County, and in the course of his incarceration became friends with Ron Williamson, another subject of Grisham’s book. The two men were in cells directly across from each other on death row. Wilhoit said the two became great friends, sharing as they did a common circumstance: innocent men incarcerated for murders they did not commit.
“We were as close as two people could be, short of embracing an alternative lifestyle,” Wilhoit said.
The story of these two men, along with Williamson’s co-defendant, Dennis Fritz, captivated Grisham, and he said he felt compelled to write his first nonfiction book based on their story.
“I saw Ron’s obituary in The New York Times in December 2004,” Grisham said. “I had never heard his story. As I looked into it, I became captivated with it. I had never thought about writing a nonfiction book; I was having too much fun writing novels, but somehow in the process of looking into this, a book happened.”
The book, a New York Times bestseller, helped draw public attention to the Innocence Project, a New York-based legal aid agency co-founded by one of O.J. Simpson’s defense attorneys, Barry Scheck. The Innocence Project ” along with the smaller Innocence Project-affiliated clinics scattered around the country in law schools, foundations, and journalism schools ” reviews claims of false convictions submitted by inmates or their families, especially when the convictions are related to DNA evidence.
Grisham will be in Oklahoma City Tuesday to speak at Oklahoma City University in an effort to raise funds and awareness for the launch of OCU’s legal clinic, a part of the Innocence Network. Grisham said he has spoken at approximately 20 clinics.
“I wish I had time to speak at all of them,” he said. “Some of these endeavors are strong, but many of them will collapse due to lack of funds in the next few years.”
Grisham was a trial attorney for 10 years, and in that time he said he never saw anyone he thought was wrongfully convicted.
“I had confidence in the system,” he said. “I worked in it; I knew judges, lawyers, district attorneys. I don’t believe I ever had a client who was wrongfully convicted.”
Grisham said he gradually became aware of the plight of innocent men and women after spending time researching “The Innocent Man.”
“I spent two hours with Tommy Ward at Lexington Penitentiary one day,” Grisham said. “At that time, he had been in prison for about 22 years for a murder he confessed to but knew nothing about. I began to realize that there are a lot of Tommy Wards in the system. These are people whom no one cares anything about.”
CULTURE OF DEATH
Grisham said his faith compels him to work for justice.
“I’m not a bleeding heart,” he said, “but at the same time, I think Jesus had a great deal of sympathy for the imprisoned. That assumption shapes my views about justice and about the death penalty. You’ll never convince me that Christ would have condoned killing by the state. I understand the frustration people feel at the rise of violent crime. We’re sick of violence, the drug culture and crime, and that makes it difficult for people to have any sympathy for those who are on the inside.”
The clinics of the Innocence Network attempt to draw attention to the plight of the falsely accused and offset some of the skepticism people have about inmates, but Grisham said other steps are necessary.
“I’m not sure grassroots activism is the best answer in this case,” he said. “People are worried about jobs, bills and money ” their lives. At another level, they may care about terrorism and war. The plight of the falsely convicted wouldn’t even make a top 25 list. What we have to do is educate judges, attorneys, law enforcement officials, and we are attempting to pass legislation in several states to help the cause of the falsely convicted, including laws to preserve DNA, modify interrogation tactics and provide compensation for these people.”
Oklahoma is one of several states to have passed a compensation bill for the falsely convicted. Williamson and Fritz benefited from the law, but Nancy Vollertsen, Wilhoit’s sister, said the law makes it nearly impossible for her brother to receive any compensation.
“When the state makes a mistake, these people need to be compensated,” Vollertsen said. “But the Oklahoma law makes it difficult to receive any money. My brother must be pardoned; the Pardon and Parole Board told him that they couldn’t issue a pardon for a crime he didn’t commit. The other standard is factual innocence. A judge must declare my brother to be factually innocent. Mark Barrett (Wilhoit’s attorney) tried to get a judge to declare it, but it’s a standard that doesn’t exist. Meanwhile, my brother is trying to survive on SSDI.”
Barrett, a Norman attorney, was assigned Wilhoit’s file when he was an attorney with the Appellate Public Defender’s Office, which has now been folded into the Oklahoma Indigent Defense System.
“I was convinced early on that Greg was innocent,” Barrett said. “He was convicted primarily on bite mark evidence. I was able to get statements from 11 of the 12 members of the American Board of Forensic Odontology that the bite mark was not consistent with Greg’s bite.”
Barrett faced off against Osage County District Attorney Larry Stuart in Wilhoit’s second trial. Barrett said he had a difficult time gaining access to the prosecution’s evidence.
“The prosecutor told me that Greg ‘had his shot at it,'” he said. “The laws are set up in such a way that if you don’t raise an issue at the earliest possible time, the defendant virtually waives his rights to bring the issue up later.”
Stuart is adamant that Wilhoit is guilty. “We didn’t just have bite mark evidence,” he said. “We had eyewitness testimony and other DNA evidence.”
Stuart said the trial judge would not allow him to present nearly half the evidence he had available in the first trial. “To be fair though, I will admit that the bite mark evidence did raise questions in my mind,” Stuart said. “But I’ve been in the business long enough to know that evidence depends on how you look at it and who it’s for.”
Stuart said he did not speak to Grisham about Wilhoit’s case prior to the publication of “The Innocent Man,” and he believes the book reflects a “strictly biased account.”
Grisham admitted that he didn’t speak to Stuart. “I read trial transcripts, talked to Barrett, and reviewed hundreds of documents. You prove to the world that these guys are wrong, destroy their cases, expose them in court, and still they can’t admit it. Can’t even issue a simple apology. There is no point in arguing with them.”
‘A SYSTEMIC FAILURE’
Larry Hellman, the dean of OCU’s School of Law, said that cases like Wilhoit’s reflect a “systemic failure” in the justice system.
“When the Oklahoma Bar Association addressed this issue at their annual meeting in 2007, the members decided that these problems were not isolated incidents, but reflected a systemic failure,” he said. “We left that meeting in agreement. We all were saying, ‘This is a problem.'”
That meeting, combined with requests from OCU’s Christian Legal Society, started Hellman thinking about the possibility of starting a clinic at OCU.
“I was in New York City in January of 2008 for a meeting,” he said. “I was able to meet with Barry Scheck and members of the original Innocence Project at Cardozo (School of Law). They were very helpful. They gave us a list of schools with clinics. One of them was the University of Missouri-Kansas City. The Innocence Clinic at UMKC met with us and answered questions about budget, start-up costs, structure, etc.”
After compiling all the information necessary, Hellman approached the faculty and alumni of OCU to ask if they would support the idea of adding the program to the curriculum “in principle.”
“They were very excited and very supportive,” he said. “I told them we would not start the clinic until the funds were in place, an additional faculty member was hired, and until we could ensure that the clinic would be fully funded for a minimum of five years. The faculty voted overwhelmingly to support the initiative.”
Hellman said his best guess is that the clinic can be up and running in the fall of 2011 at the earliest. Grisham’s visit is to draw attention to the project in hopes of raising funds as well as awareness.
The event will feature a dramatic interpretation of excerpts from “The Exonerated,” a play that uses the actual words of falsely convicted people to dramatize their plight. Grisham will speak for 20 to 30 minutes between the vignettes.
The event is free and open to the public. Hellman said donations will be requested but are not required. The event begins at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday in the Freede Wellness and Activity Center on the campus of OCU. “Greg Horton