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Greg Wilhoit: The story of an innocent man

March 4, 2010

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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