Nancy Vollertsen was living in Germany with her husband and two young children when she got a letter from her mother that her brother, Greg, had been arrested in Oklahoma for the rape and murder of his estranged wife, Kathy. It was 1986. Before everyone communicated by email, before newspapers from anywhere in the world could be accessed with the click of computer keys, before cell phones made international calls affordable.
“I’m doing the best I can through letters,” Nancy remembers. “I just kept thinking that they’re going to figure out they’ve got the wrong guy. And Mom wrote that everything was going to be fine.”
But it wasn’t. In 1987, Greg Wilhoit, who had turned down a plea deal because he insisted he was innocent, was found guilty and sentenced to death. He was convicted mainly on the basis of bite mark evidence linked to him by two dentists, one of whom had graduated from dental school six months earlier. His attorney, appeared drunk three times in court, and even threw up in the judge’s chamber at one point.
“It was devastating,” says Nancy. She flew home, and visited Greg on death row. “My life is over,” he told her. “I’ll go through my first appeal, but if the best that happens is they give me life without parole, I’m going to ask them to execute me. I didn’t do this. I can’t spend the rest of my life in prison.”
Greg won his appeal based on ineffective counsel in 1991. The district attorney waited two years before deciding to retry him in 1993, again seeking the death penalty. But this time, Greg had a good lawyer, Mark Barrett from the Oklahoma Indigent Defense System, who, at the evidentiary hearing, presented affidavits from 12 odontologists, stating that the bite marks on Kathy Wilhoit did not match Greg’s teeth. The judge ruled the bite marks inadmissible, the prosecution had no other real evidence incriminating Greg, and after presenting its case, the judge issued a directed verdict of innocence; the case never even went to a jury. Greg was a free man, eight years after Kathy Wilhoit was killed, seven-and-a-half years after he was arrested, five years after he was first sent to death row.
But Greg was a changed man. “He really struggled,” Nancy says. His children were now living with a foster family who belonged to the Wilhoit’s church, and it was decided that it would be better for them to remain there. “So he lost his children, he lost his home, he lost his livelihood, his mental health, his physical health, and there was no compensation,” says Nancy. “He didn’t even get an apology.”
Greg’s salvation came with an invitation in 1998 from Northwestern University Law School, which was holding its first Wrongful Convictions and the Death Penalty conference. Greg, his parents and Nancy, and Mark Barrett, went together. There were approximately 28 other exonerees there, and for Greg it was the first realization that he wasn’t alone in his experience, that there were people who knew first-hand what he had been through, and there were even more people out there who cared. He decided to get involved. Never comfortable with public speaking, Greg nevertheless began going with Nancy to abolition events around the country and the two of them got involved with organizations including the Oklahoma Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, the Oklahoma City University Innocence Project, Death Penalty Focus, and Witness to Innocence (“the exonerees in WTI were truly Greg’s brothers and sisters,” Nancy says).
Greg had moved to Sacramento in 1993, after getting a job offer from a friend there, and remarried. He passed away in his sleep in February 2014, after suffering physical and psychological problems for years. “People just don’t understand” the damage that is inflicted on a person who is incarcerated for a crime he didn’t commit, Nancy says. And the psychological ramifications of living in a prison with a death sentence hanging over your head are overwhelming. “They’re so scarred, so damaged,” she says.
Nancy’s commitment to seeing the death penalty abolished didn’t end with Greg’s death. In fact, it strengthened it. “I owe it to him to keep trying,” she says. “I owe it to the exonerees and those innocent people on death row. I can’t tell you how many classes and groups I speak to about criminal justice and the death penalty.” She is on the board of Witness to Innocence and continues to work with the Oklahoma City University Innocence Project.
“I have a basic faith in humanity,” she says. “I believe people are basically good, and want to do the right thing. We just have to educate them. I’m in a position where I can do that. The majority of people on death row are minorities, poor, with mental or psychological issues. When someone like me, white middle class, Christian, can get up there and say this is what happened to my family, people understand. This could happen to anyone.
“I have yet to meet anyone who admits to wanting to see an innocent person executed. When you can put a name and a face on an innocent person, telling his story and letting people know there was a man named Greg Wilhoit and he suffered needlessly because of our flawed justice system, enough people will turn around and realize there is an alternative to the death penalty.”