You've probably never heard of Greg Wilhoit. Which is too bad, because he's a hero. His story is one of the great unacknowledged tragedies of modern America. As sometimes happens with the quiet, unsung heroes, he's fighting for his life today. And not for the first time.
Greg is one of the thousands of men and women who have been tried, convicted and sentenced to death in our country. More to the point, he's one of the 139 who, after struggling for years to cling to sanity and humanity in the rubbish heap of death row, was proven innocent of the crime, exonerated and freed almost two decades ago.
A simple man, a laborer, Greg had lived a simple life until his wife, the mother of his two children, was brutally murdered and the Oklahoma authorities, unable to solve the crime, decided he had to pay for it.
And pay he did. With an ambitious prosecutor pressing the case against a drunken defense attorney, Greg was stunned but not surprised to be found guilty. As he says, "the jury only heard one side."
If you've read John Grisham's The Innocent Man, you've heard of Greg because he was on Oklahoma's death row with Ron Williamson, the subject of that powerful work. In fact, Grisham has publicly credited Greg for befriending Williamson on death row and fighting to keep him sane.
I don't use the word hero casually. For someone to experience the horror of having been deemed so vile as to warrant being put to death, of being told he deserved to be shackled and caged until they got around to extinguishing him, of being found so repulsive that he merits only the contempt of captors who strip him of every trace of humanity before strapping him down and killing him, is to endure torture.
To experience such degradation and suddenly be released by the work of a caring appellate attorney is to be vomited from darkness to light. To live through it and be freed without compensation for the pain inflicted, without even so much as a simple apology from those who sent him to die or from the state that tortured him, is maddening.
To survive it at all takes the kind of courage and stamina most don't possess. But no matter how brave, no human does so without injury. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is the least one can expect from suffering this ninth circle of hell. And Greg didn't escape the horrors: the sweats, the night terrors, the panic attacks, the need to hide, the sense of impending doom, the terrifying, overwhelming fear that at any moment they can take you away again, strip you again, and kill you again.
But no matter the pain, some unalterable core of decency in this man would not be extinguished. Despite the unimaginable pain of his experience, rather than dwelling in fury at those who had done him harm, rather than armoring himself with cynical bitterness at the world at large, or smothering in self-pity as do so many who suffer hideous abuse, Greg put Oklahoma behind him and came to California, striving to overcome his demons.
A shy man uncomfortable with attention, he nevertheless worked to turn his pain into benefit for others. Joining other exonerees, with Death Penalty Focus and other organizations, speaking to children in schools, to adults in churches and town halls, Greg tried to square his experience with the world we believe exists. Largely unschooled and inarticulate, he spoke with an eloquence borne of passion that moved and inspired those who heard him.
But the memory of his torture never left. The scars were too vivid, too painful. He fought the terror. He tried to trust. He tried to build a life.
Ten years after he was declared innocent and freed, Oklahoma finally passed a law allowing compensation for those who had been wrongly convicted. Hopeful, Greg went home. If not an apology, at least there could be something to help heal the wounds the state had inflicted. But the politicians were clever. Before he could be compensated, there had to be a pardon. The Board of Pardons and Paroles said since Greg had not committed a crime they could issue no pardon.
Without a pardon, the moneychangers said, he had to show that the court had held him to be "factually innocent." But in 1993, when a judge set him free saying he was not guilty, the words "factually innocent" were not uttered, not being a legal term generally in use at the time.
When Greg went back to court with the expert witness who gave the lie to the evidence used to convict him, the prosecutor, refusing to admit error, said the evidence was no longer relevant so the expert's opinion was inadmissible. The judge agreed.
Insulted, injured yet again, Greg returned to California and restarted his lonely journey of healing and his efforts to educate us about the danger of ambitious prosecutors, complacent judges and an abusive system.
He found a home and friends, but never peace. Riding his bicycle in Sacramento last year, Greg was hit by a truck and severely injured. Determination, time and brutal physical therapy moved him closer to the dream of again pursuing justice, but it was not to be. Last month he collapsed. Alone and unable to move, he lay doubled up for hours, further traumatizing his injured spine. When finally discovered, he was paralyzed. Further, damage to internal organs has left him in critical condition. He is now in hospice care.
As he lies there, I ask you: When the state becomes a crushing, soulless monster, who is to answer for it? When ambition, arrogance, complacency and self-protection betray justice, who is served? When a simple man can be ground thoughtlessly under the heel of an uncaring system, does anything matter?
One unsung hero, Greg Wilhoit, believes it does.