I saw the first minutes of an innocent man’s freedom after 20 years in prison

Roger Dean Gillispie leaves a bus with supporters to face his parents’ home, which he hadn’t seen in 20 years. According to a U.S. district court decision six days ago, Gillispie was wrongly convicted of nine counts of rape in 1988. Photo by Teesha McClam, used courtesy of Dayton Daily News.

Though he likely could have gotten out sooner by feigning guilt, Gillispie maintained his innocence throughout his imprisonment. This persistence would seem to make him an even more valuable advocate for The Innocence Project — in Ohio, an arm of the University of Cincinnati law school — which helped free him.

My co-byline appears on Dayton Daily News‘ front page today, above the fold. Here’s the PDF.

An Ohio attorney-turned-politician, Jim Petro, has been behind Gillispie for several years. Petro’s book on wrongful convictions has been making waves in the world of law enforcement and is dedicated to Gillispie.

After the jump I’ve pasted my notes from the initial meeting in the bowling alley. (Edited for space, the article above leaves out the small details of Gillispie’s first minutes of freedom.)

The first thing Gillispie saw as he was driven out of the London prison on the rainy Thursday night was a flickering yellow Good Year tire sign. Because the federal court released him, the state had to first release him into federal custody.

U.S. Marshals drove Gillispie half a mile south to a bowling alley, where, after lashing a tracking bracelet to his ankle (he’s in a type of probation for now), he was given over to his supporters.

There were dozens of them — parents, family, friends from Gillespie’s youth. Many tried not to cry. None really succeeded.

With attorneys standing on tables to see over the crowd, Gillispie’s mother, Juana, saw him enter the foyer of the bowling alley. She charged him with a tearful hug.

Soon Gillispie pulled up his mother’s arms and boogied without music in the worn-out, rain-soaked foyer. His father stood just inside watching.

“We did it, Daddy,” he said. “We did it, buddy.”

His father passed his mother a handkerchief.

A dozen reporters with cameras flocked around Gillispie like international sports paparazzi — as he moved freely from friend to sibling to defense attorney, hugging each as he went, the reporters moved inches out of his way.

Gillispie maintained his innocence for 20 years, never once declaring he raped three women in August 1988, the crime he was accused of. Several times, he faced an increased chance of being released on parole if he admitted guilt — including after only 30 days in prison.

Maintaining your innocence is “all you can do,” Gillispie told a reporter at the bowling alley. “You can’t let these people win. You have to fight this every day.”

The two lead attorneys acting in Gillispie’s defense couldn’t attend the joyous event. One of them, Jim Petro, a former state attorney general and auditor, dedicated his book on wrongful convictions to Gillispie.

“If me and another woman said you raped us, I could put you in prison,” Gillispie’s mother told several men before her son arrived. “It’s so easy to throw someone in prison.”

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