A Former Doctor was Conditionally Pardoned After a Life Sentence

Vince Gilmer 

A dying former doctor serving a life sentence for murder could soon be free after parole and a two-year wait.

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 show and book, was pardoned on parole in January 2022. But because of the strict conditions attached to the pardon and what it stands for, it was described as a delay or Indifference from government officials and healthcare institutions; he remained behind bars in a southwest Virginia prison as his health deteriorated.

Gilmer (61 years old) suffers from Huntington's disease, a rare, devastating, and incurable disorder that attacks the brain and affects patients' cognitive and physical abilities. His diagnosis—revealed after his conviction by the doctor who took over his practice and curiously bears his last name—was the basis for his 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 when he was a child and was sentenced to life imprisonment. Although no one claims Gilmer is innocent, his supporters claim that the outcome of his 2005 trial, where he insisted on representing himself and jurors rejected his insanity plea, likely would have been different had he been diagnosed correctly at the time. They argued that mercy, in the form of admission to a treatment center, was the most appropriate outcome.

With the help of a North Carolina legislator, Gilmer's successor in medical practice, attorney, and now legal guardian, Dr. Benjamin Gilmer, found a hospital willing to accept Vince Gilmer as a long-term patient, in keeping with the terms of the pardon. He said in an interview that he had received confirmation from officials in Virginia that Vince Gilmer would be released on Thursday.

"It's a beautiful moment. But at the same time, we're all nervous and anxious because, you know, you never know what could happen through a prison door," Benjamin Gilmer said.

The Virginia Department of Corrections did not directly respond to a question about when Gilmer would be released but confirmed in a written statement that it is working through "logistics" to set a release date "as soon as possible."

Benjamin Gilmer, who conducted 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 it as best he could. But it was a bit anti-climactic because he's in such bad shape," Benjamin Gilmer said.

Vince Gilmer is in the "final stages" of his disease, confined to a wheelchair and on the verge of being bedridden, struggling to eat, and losing his cognitive abilities.

Benjamin Gilmer, who arranged safe transportation for the transfer, said hospital settings would provide more aggressive treatment and allow Vince Gilmer "to experience a little life and dignity," including more regular visits from his mother.

"I pray I can get there and hug him again," said Gloria Hitt, Vince Gilmer's 80-year-old mother.

Benjamin Gilmer wrote in his book The Other Dr. Gilmer that he became fascinated with Vince Gilmer's case after joining a family medicine practice outside of Asheville, where Vince Gilmer worked. Patients and former colleagues described Vince Gilmer as a beloved member of the community and a dedicated doctor 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 efforts to try to reconcile his reputation with the horrific crime for which he was convicted. His quest was documented by journalist Sarah Koenig, later the host of the popular podcast "Serial," in 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 was released from a psychiatric hospital. He was strangled, and his fingers were cut off. Vince Gilmer claimed during the trial that his father made sexual advances toward him and that he picked up his voice at a time when he was also hearing voices, the Richmond Times-Dispatch previously reported, citing trial transcripts.

Two of the plaintiffs participating in the trial could not be reached for comment. The judge who presided over the hearing said through a spokeswoman for the company where he now works that he was unable to comment on previous cases.

Benjamin Gilmer's investigation eventually led to a diagnosis of Huntington's that was confirmed by laboratory work. He began networking with lawyers and other advocates who would put together a strategy to free Vince Gilmer from prison by pursuing a clemency petition.

Former Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat, denied the request. Then, so did Governor Ralph Northam, his Democratic successor. But Dr. Northam reconsidered and issued a conditional pardon on one of his final days in office. The conditions state that Vince Gilmer must be admitted to a medical or psychiatric facility, remain on probation and parole in accordance with the guidance of the Virginia Parole Board, and be provided with his own "safe" transportation.

Efforts have begun to find a location for Vince Gilmer. Benjamin Gilmer wrote that he unsuccessfully petitioned every public mental hospital in Virginia, as well as appropriate public mental health facilities in North Carolina, "but they required that Vince be first in the Virginia hospital to move from state to state. It is a strange, restricted area.

Benjamin Gilmer said in an interview No one cares that they have a man dying in their prison," he said in an interview before receiving confirmation of his release date, adding that many private facilities were also reluctant to take in a convicted murderer.

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

If all goes according to plan, the welcoming team, along with the film crew working on a documentary about the Vince Gilmer story, plan to meet him Thursday in Marion with a special meal on hand: Coca-Cola, Twinkies, and a Whopper.

Benjamin Gilmer said his defense of Vince Gilmer, which has now spanned more than a decade, has convinced him that the United States detains too many mentally ill individuals in a way that is "inconsistent with morality, humanity, or the Hippocratic Oath."

"We have had no confidence in the cancer treatment system in Virginia over the years and we won't celebrate until Thursday," he said.

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