Roger Dean Gillispie has been in prison for 16 years for three rapes he swears he didn’t commit. He has maintained his innocence from the outset, and the Ohio Innocence Project has been working on his case since 2003. Mr. Gillispie is currently awaiting a decision from the parole board, expected early next week, on whether or not it will reconsider its decision last month to deny him parole.
In 1990, Mr. Gillispie was charged with the rape of three women, in a cold case from 1988. The only evidence purportedly linking him to the crime was a set of identifications by the victims that flowed from a gravely flawed police procedure, in which police clearly suggested to the witnesses that Mr. Gillespie was the man they should pick. His face was larger in the frame than anyone else in the lineup. His face was against a yellow background on photo paper with a matte finish, whereas the other members of the lineup appeared against blue backgrounds on glossy paper. “Gillispie’s photo was all but circled and starred,” leaving no question in the minds of the witnesses who the investigating officer wanted them to ID. Following the well-crafted cues, all three witnesses selected Mr. Gillespie as the perpetrator, and despite the absence of any forensic or other corroborating evidence, the eyewitness testimony was sufficient to get Mr. Gillispie convicted by two juries.
Several key details about the attacker’s description conflicted with Gillispie’s actual traits, to such a degree that the original investigating officers ruled him out as a suspect on those grounds alone. His hair was a different color, he had pale skin instead of a dark tan, thick chest hair as opposed to none, and a thick Kentucky accent where the perpetrator did not. Yet almost certainly because of the manner in which the lineup was constructed, Gillispie was selected by all three witnesses.
Also of note is the fact that there is another man from the same area — an ex-prison guard — who fits the original description of the attacker to every detail, including his height, weight, hair color, and his “commanding voice.” Further, the man who Gillespie’s attorneys believe should have been the prime suspect appeared to betray knowledge about the case, without any cues from the attorneys — he repeatedly referred to the “ladies,” without any mention having been made of multiple victims. The same man was arrested for a similar crime in 1990, but was released when the complaining witness failed to cooperate. Mr. Gillispie had a clean record up until this unfortunate turn of events.
Mr. Gillispie continues to maintain his innocence 16 years later, despite his knowledge that an admission of guilt might get him an earlier parole. Weighed against his 16 years in an Ohio state prison, in his own words, “Sometimes I wonder if death ain’t better.”