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Dying ex-doctor serving life for murder may soon be free after a conditional pardon and 2-year wait

In World
May 21, 2024

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — On paper, Vince Gilmer was granted freedom more than two years ago. Later this week, he may actually leave prison.

The former small-town North Carolina doctor and convicted murderer whose medical mystery captured widespread attention after being documented in a popular radio program and a book, was conditionally pardoned in January 2022. But because of the strict terms attached to the pardon and what his advocates describe as delay or indifference from government officials and health care institutions, he’s remained behind bars in a southwest Virginia prison as his health deteriorated.

Gilmer, 61, has Huntington’s disease, a rare, devastating and incurable disorder that attacks the brain and affects patients’ cognition and physical abilities. His diagnosis — unraveled after his conviction by the physician who took over his practice and oddly enough shares his last name — was the basis of the pardon, which was granted after many years of advocacy.

Vince Gilmer admitted to killing his father, whom he accused at trial of committing horrific acts of sexual abuse against him as a child, and he received a life sentence. Though no one claims Gilmer is innocent, his supporters argue that the outcome of his 2005 trial, where he insisted on representing himself and jurors rejected his insanity defense, would likely have been different if he had been properly diagnosed at the time. They argued that mercy, in the form of admission to a treatment center, was the more appropriate outcome.

With the help of a North Carolina lawmaker, Gilmer’s medical practice successor and now advocate and legal guardian, Dr. Benjamin Gilmer, has found a hospital willing to accept Vince Gilmer as a long-term patient, in line with the pardon terms. He received confirmation from Virginia officials that Vince Gilmer will be released Thursday, he said in an interview.

“It’s such a beautiful moment. But at the same time, we’re all stressed and anxious because, you know, you never know what could happen in between … the door to the prison,” Benjamin Gilmer said.

The Virginia Department of Corrections did not directly address a question about when Gilmer would be released but confirmed in a written statement that it was working through “logistics” to establish a release date “as soon as possible.”

Benjamin Gilmer, who granted a series of interviews to discuss the case, recently visited the Marion Correctional Treatment Center where Vince Gilmer is in custody, to share the news. The two men are not related.

“He had a moment of joy and expressed that as best he could. But it was a little anti-climactic in a way because he’s in such bad shape,” Benjamin Gilmer said.

Vince Gilmer is in the “terminal phases” of his illness, confined to a wheelchair and fairly close to being bedbound, struggling to eat, losing his cognitive abilities and at high risk for aspiration pneumonia, Benjamin Gilmer said.

The hospital setting will provide more robust treatment and allow Vince Gilmer to “experience a little bit of life and dignity,” including more regular visits from his mother, said Benjamin Gilmer, who has arranged secure transportation for the transfer.

“I’m praying I can get there and just hold him again,” said Vince Gilmer’s 80-year-old mother, Gloria Hitt.

Benjamin Gilmer wrote in his book, “The Other Dr. Gilmer,” that he became fascinated with Vince Gilmer’s case after he joined the family medicine clinic just outside of Asheville, where Vince Gilmer used to work. Patients and former colleagues described Vince Gilmer as a beloved community member and dedicated clinician who made house calls, remembered birthdays and cared for patients regardless of their ability to pay.

Benjamin Gilmer eventually wrote to Vince Gilmer and began the effort to try to square his reputation with the horrific crime for which he’d been convicted. His quest was documented by journalist Sarah Koenig, later the host of the wildly popular podcast “Serial,” on an episode of “This American Life” titled “Dr. Gilmer and Mr. Hyde.”

Vince Gilmer’s father, Dalton Gilmer, was found dead in southwest Virginia near the North Carolina border in 2004, shortly after Vince Gilmer checked him out of a psychiatric hospital. He had been strangled and his fingers were severed. Vince Gilmer claimed at trial that his father made a sexual advance toward him and he snapped at a time when he was also hearing voices, the Richmond Times-Dispatch previously reported, citing trial transcripts.

Two prosecutors involved in the trial could not be reached for comment. The judge who presided over it said through a spokeswoman at the firm where he now works that he is unable to comment on prior cases.

Benjamin Gilmer’s sleuthing eventually led to a Huntington’s diagnosis confirmed by lab work. He began to connect with lawyers and other advocates who would assemble a strategy to free Vince Gilmer from prison by pursuing a clemency petition.

Former Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat, denied the request. Then Gov. Ralph Northam, his Democratic successor, did too. But Northam, a physician, reconsidered and issued a conditional pardon on one of his final days in office. The terms said Vince Gilmer had to be accepted to a medical or psychiatric facility, remain on probation and parole as directed by the Virginia Parole Board and provide his own “secure” transportation.

Efforts got underway to find Vince Gilmer a placement. Benjamin Gilmer wrote that he unsuccessfully petitioned every Virginia public mental health hospital, as well as appropriate public mental health facilities in North Carolina, “but they required that Vince first be in a Virginia hospital for a state-to-state transfer. Vince was stuck in a bizarre no-man’s-land,” he wrote.

“Nobody cares that they have a man dying in their prison,” Benjamin Gilmer said in an interview before he’d received confirmation of a release date, adding that many private facilities were also reluctant to take in a convicted murderer.

Efforts by North Carolina state Sen. Julie Mayfield led to a breakthrough. Mayfield said in an interview she found a western North Carolina hospital that by mid-2023 had agreed to take Vince Gilmer.

If all goes according to plan, a welcome brigade along with a film crew working on a documentary about Vince Gilmer’s story plans to meet him Thursday in Marion, with a special meal in hand: a Coke, Twinkies and a Whopper.

Benjamin Gilmer said his advocacy for Vince Gilmer, which has now stretched over a decade, has convinced him that the United States incarcerates far too many mentally ill individuals in a way that’s “not compatible with ethics or humanity or the Hippocratic oath.”

“We haven’t had any trust in the Virginia carceral system over the years,” he said. “We’re not going to celebrate until Thursday.”

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