Ohio Innocence Project’s 14th inmate sees freedom
by Deborah Rieselman
After serving 20 years in prison for rapes that he had always maintained he did not commit, 46-year-old Roger “Dean” Gillispie walked out of prison into the arms of his mother and father three days before Christmas — thanks to the persistent efforts of the Ohio Innocence Project (OIP), operated by the UC College of Law. Since the case became OIP’s first one nine years ago, students and professor Mark Godsey, OIP director and former federal prosecutor, have doggedly worked on it.
“It's been up and down through the courts, year in year out,” Godsey said. “We finally got it to federal court, and as they often say in Innocence Projects, ‘You don't get a fair shot until you get to federal court.’ That maxim certainly proved true in this case.”
On Dec. 16, 2011, in Dayton, Ohio, U.S. District Magistrate Judge Michael Merz ruled that Gillispie didn’t get a fair trial in 1991 when he was convicted of rape, kidnapping and aggravated robbery for crimes committed in 1988 in Harrison and Miami townships. At that time, he was sentenced to 22 to 56 years in prison. On Dec. 22, Merz released him on bond, although the state has appealed the decision.
Merz’s ruling stated that information withheld from the jury in 1991 “could reasonably be taken to put the whole case in such a different light as to undermine confidence in the verdict.” That information included the fact that the original investigating police detectives had “eliminated Mr. Gillispie as a suspect because he did not fit the physical description of the rapist which the victims had given, nor did he fit the profile of the rapist,” Merz wrote. Furthermore, there was “absolutely no physical evidence that connected Mr. Gillispie to the crimes,” he noted.
“Dean has been my client since January 2003,” Godsey said, “and there is no case that I have worked harder on in my career. More than anyone, though, this case belongs to the UC law students.
“So many students through the years have poured their hearts and souls into this case. So many of them have cried with Dean and his mother, or held their hands.
“Without their passion and inspiration, this victory would not have happened. Student idealism and passion is the lifeblood of the OIP. The students are what make us better than other legal organizations that aren't run by students.” Gillispie is the 12th prisoner whom students have freed through the Ohio Innocence Project.
Gillispie’s conviction came because victims identified him in a photo lineup nearly two years after the crimes occurred. Gillispie was implicated by one of his supervisors, who had just terminated him from his job and who had a “work-related vendetta” against him, according to Gillispie. The former colleague delivered Gillispie’s photo to a recently promoted police detective who had taken over the case.
The detective created a photo lineup in which Gillispie’s photo “was closer and larger than the other photos in the spread and, unlike the other photos, had a matte finish,” Judge Merz wrote. And at some point in the 1991 deliberations, the jury was deadlocked eight to four in favor of acquittal.
“Dean is an innocent man, and his family has borne the brunt of his wrongful conviction while he has been incarcerated,” Godsey said. On the morning in which he told Gillispie’s mother about the judge’s ruling, she broke down into uncontrollable sobs, reflecting “the depth of emotion caused by wrongful conviction” and “the anguish with which she has lived for 20 years,” Godsey added.
Students who had worked on the case include current students Megan Collard, ’12; Lindsey Fleissner, ’12; Chelsea Brint, ’13; and Caitlin Brown ’13; as well as alumni Mike Cappell, ’05; Kelly Schukart, ’05; Gerri Jones, ’06; Jeanette McClellan, ’06 (A&S ‘003); Katie Stanberry, ’06; Lindsey Gutierrez, 08; Rimma Kuchuk, '08; Ashley Couch ’09; Miranda Hamrick, ’09 (Cler ’03); Melissa Laugle, ’10; Amanda Smith, ’10; Ryan Houston, '11 (A&S ’08); and Darryl Osuch, ’11.