Left for dead

Greg Wilhoit supported capital punishment— until he wound up on death row

Greg Wilhoit was wrongly convicted in 1985 and spent five years on death row.

Greg Wilhoit was wrongly convicted in 1985 and spent five years on death row.

You’ll never hear Greg Wilhoit complain about living in Sacramento. After being wrongly convicted for the 1985 murder of his wife and spending five years on Oklahoma’s death row before the conviction was overturned, Wilhoit understandably wanted to get as far away from Oklahoma as he could.

“It was worth doing five years on Oklahoma’s death row for the opportunity to live in Northern California,” Wilhoit says with a thick Southern accent. After he was exonerated in 1993, he moved to Sacramento, where he quickly became a death-penalty abolitionist and public speaker.

Wilhoit’s story begins with the violent murder of his wife while his infant daughters slept in their upstairs bedroom. Wilhoit and his wife had been separated for three weeks. The only alibi he could offer was that he was sleeping alone on the night of the murder.

The horror story reached its climax when he was sentenced to death while being represented by a once-prominent attorney who was disbarred while on Wilhoit’s case. But for Wilhoit, the hardest day was about eight weeks prior to the trial, when arrangements for his children’s care had to be made.

“We actually went and toured an orphanage so my daughters would have somewhere to stay when their daddy went to death row for murdering their mom. It was a bad day,” he says as a tear falls into his coarse gray beard.

Though the superstitious Wilhoit found himself in cell No. 13 on death row, he still vehemently supported capital punishment for the first three years of his sentence.

“My whole life I was an advocate and a proponent of the death penalty. Just because I was on the business side of a death sentence didn’t mean that I would compromise my convictions,” Wilhoit says.

It wasn’t until the 1990 execution of Charles Troy Coleman, one of the few friends Wilhoit made on death row, that he had a change of heart about the death penalty.

“Nobody could have been more shocked or surprised than I was, when instead of indifference, I was overwhelmed with grief,” Wilhoit says. “The world wasn’t a safer place and the sun certainly wasn’t going to shine much brighter.”

Before Wilhoit could share his epiphany with the world, he first needed to escape death. Enter public defender Mark Barrett. Wilhoit originally was convicted solely on what the prosecution called “undisputable bite-mark evidence.” Barrett sent the bite-mark evidence to 12 forensic odontologists. After anonymously analyzing the evidence, the dozen experts unanimously concluded the bite mark was not made by Wilhoit. He was found innocent in a second trial in 1993.

“I would hate for anybody to have to go through what I went through to become enlightened,” Wilhoit says.

Ellen Eggers, a Sacramento public defender who opposes the death penalty, met Wilhoit when he was speaking at an anti-death penalty rally on the Capitol steps. After his speech, she introduced herself and asked if he would be willing to tell other people his story.

“We became fast friends,” she says. “We spoke at Catholic high schools, church groups and college classes. We’ve just been all over the place.”

Eggers, who as a public defender for 18 years has worked on several death-penalty appeals, says she is still always appalled when she hears the justice system has failed to work properly.

“Greg has seen the death penalty issue from both sides,” she says. “He lost his wife to murder and basically lost his children because he had to give them up when he went to prison. His life was destroyed because of a violent murder in his family’s life. The death penalty doesn’t heal victims, it doesn’t deter crime and it doesn’t make us safer. It’s very counter-productive.”

When Wilhoit is not traveling the globe sharing his story, he spends his time reading or trying to find odd jobs around town. Even though he is on state disability for post traumatic stress disorder, the benefits are not always enough.

“I don’t mind cleaning out gutters,” he says.

Small victories fill Wilhoit with hope, such as New Jersey’s recent abolition of the death penalty.

“We in the abolition community were very thrilled, even if their motives were simply to save millions of dollars,” Wilhoit says.

A Christian, Wilhoit says he has a litany of reasons why he is against capital punishment, but his main objection is quite simple.

“I believe that we as a people simply lack the authority to decide who lives and dies.”