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Pardoned but still in prison: Advocates work to free man caught in system

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) speaks during an interview in his conference room at the Capitol in January shortly before leaving office at the end of his term. (Steve Helber/AP)
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correction

A previous version of this article incorrectly reported that the Virginia General Assembly had passed a law in 2021 ending the use of restrictive housing for the incarcerated. The assembly passed a law this year mandating the study of the practice, while the Department of Corrections said it ended the use of restrictive housing last year. Also, the article incorrectly reported that "This American Life" is an NPR program. It is aired on NPR. The article has been corrected.

RICHMOND — In the final hours before leaving office in January, Gov. Ralph Northam pardoned prison inmate Vince Gilmer, whose extraordinary tale of murder and mysterious illness has drawn international attention.

But nearly seven months later, Gilmer, 59, is still incarcerated, and the ravaging disease at the heart of his case continues to worsen. Now supporters are mounting a last-ditch fundraising effort to crack the stalemate that’s keeping the former North Carolina physician behind bars.

“We’re in this very bizarre space, it’s very symbolic of … what is happening everywhere in America regarding the mass incarceration of the mentally ill,” said Benjamin Gilmer, who is not related, but who has devoted much of the past decade to advocating for the man who shares his name — and profession.

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Benjamin Gilmer stumbled onto the case in 2009, when he took a job near Asheville, N.C., as a doctor at a rural health clinic and faced the odd coincidence that a predecessor had also been named Gilmer. That doctor was beloved by his patients for generous, selfless care, but he was now in prison for murdering his father.

Benjamin Gilmer’s quest to make sense of the situation was documented in an episode of public radio’s “This American Life” that aired in 2013 and more recently in his book “The Other Dr. Gilmer,” which was published in March and is being made into a movie.

He learned that his supposedly gentle predecessor had strangled his father in 2004, cut off his fingers to prevent identification and dumped the body in Virginia.

But he also learned that less than a year before the killing, Vince Gilmer had suffered a traumatic brain injury in a car accident and had seemed different ever since. He learned that when Gilmer was growing up, he was subjected to horrific sexual abuse at the hands of his father.

And over time, after struggling to understand the strange behavior that had court officials convinced Vince Gilmer was trying to fake mental illness, Benjamin Gilmer came to believe that the explanation was an undiagnosed case of Huntington’s disease. Tests later confirmed it.

Huntington’s is a progressive and fatal neurological disorder that causes people to act in impulsive and uncontrollable ways. Benjamin Gilmer was convinced that the disease, the injury and the abuse were at the root of the crime, and that Vince Gilmer needed treatment, not incarceration.

He lobbied Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) for clemency so that Vince Gilmer could be sent to a mental health facility but was turned down. When Northam (D) took office in 2017, he figured he had a fighting chance because the new governor was a pediatric neurologist who would be more likely to understand the disease.

In 2021, Northam rejected the appeal. Benjamin Gilmer persisted, calling and emailing administration officials and sending them advance copies of his book. Finally, on his last day in office early this year, Northam granted a conditional pardon.

“This is one that was not easy initially,” said Clark Mercer, who served as Northam’s chief of staff. He mentioned the brutal nature of the crime, but said that Northam was familiar with Huntington’s as a physician and realized it was a complex case.

During his final days in office, Mercer said, Northam gave a second look to a number of pardon requests, including Vince Gilmer’s. He ultimately granted more than 1,200 pardons during his four-year term, which his office said was more than nine previous governors combined.

When reconsidering the Gilmer case, Mercer said, the governor was swayed by the idea of mandating that the inmate establish a “home plan” for treatment and guardianship as a condition of release. Such a requirement is common, Mercer said.

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The language of the pardon requires that Vince Gilmer get admission to a treatment facility that meets “both his psychiatric and medical needs,” have the plan approved by the state Department of Corrections and pay for his own secure transportation to be relocated.

Benjamin Gilmer said state officials, by putting full responsibility on the inmate, are essentially requiring Vince Gilmer to pay a private facility for treatment when Virginia has public mental health hospitals that would be an ideal home for him — including one adjacent to the prison where he’s being held in Marion in the southwestern part of the state.

In the meantime, he said, Vince Gilmer’s condition is deteriorating. He relies on a wheelchair to get around because he’s too unsteady to stand. “It’s difficult for him to talk. Cognitively, he’s very slowed at this point. It’s difficult for him to swallow,” he said, adding that aspiration — essentially, choking — is a common killer for people with Huntington’s.

The disorder also causes him to behave erratically. Huntington patients often lash out physically at their caregivers — not out of malice, Benjamin Gilmer said, but because their brains are misfiring. He accused prison officials of assigning Vince Gilmer to solitary confinement as punishment.

Department of Corrections spokesman Benjamin Jarvela denied the allegation, saying via email that Virginia does not use solitary confinement.

“Mr. Gilmer has been placed in Restorative Housing on some occasions, all short-duration periods, as a direct result of his exhibiting dangerous behavior towards himself or other individuals in the facility,” Jarvela said, referring to a recent state program that’s supposed to provide a safe environment for inmates suffering from mental illness. “I’m afraid we cannot discuss confidential incarceration & health records further than that.”

The General Assembly passed a law this year mandating the study of the use of “restrictive housing,” or solitary confinement. While the Department of Corrections said it acted on its own last year to end the policy, the ACLU and other advocacy groups have charged that the “restorative housing” program it was replaced with amounts to the same thing.

The Corrections Department “is more than willing to release Mr. Gilmer once the terms of his clemency have been met,” Jarvela said.

Benjamin Gilmer said he has appealed to state Attorney General Jason Miyares (R) to intervene but has been rebuffed. A spokeswoman for Miyares said his office has no role in the case. A spokeswoman for Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) said via email that “the individual’s early release is dependent on the fulfillment of the pardon requirements.”

The plan now is to get Vince Gilmer into a private facility so he could eventually move to a public mental health hospital in North Carolina, which won’t take transfers directly from prisons, Benjamin Gilmer said. That’s going to cost at least $100,000, he said.

This week, Benjamin Gilmer started a GoFundMe campaign to raise that amount. By Friday afternoon, it had topped $67,000 — including a $20,000 donation from the musician Sting and his wife, Trudie Styler. Any extra funds raised will allow Vince Gilmer to stay in private care longer before transferring, Benjamin Gilmer said.

He said the situation needs to be resolved as quickly as possible.

“Everybody knows he’s terminally ill and is going to die. We’re afraid he’s either going to take his own life or aspirate tonight and die,” he said. State officials “are not willing to do anything to step up, but they’re willing to let him sit there and rot in prison.”

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