Wrongfully convicted man who spent 20 years in prison awarded $45 million
In 1991, Dean Gillispie was convicted of a crime that he did not commit and sent to prison. With the help of the Ohio Innocence Project, he was exonerated after spending 20 years behind bars. Gillispie is now an advocate for the project that set him free, and recently he went back to court and was awarded a $45 million verdict for wrongful conviction.
Renee Wilde caught up with a tired looking Dean Gillispie at his home in Fairborn, where he was getting ready to travel to Cleveland with his girlfriend to visit her mother in Hospice.
“I didn’t get home till 4:00 this morning from an exoneration last night in Columbus,” Dean said, sitting on a couch in his living room. “A guy by the name of Allen Butts got out (after) almost 20 years. It’s our 37th person we’ve got out with our OIP”.
OIP stands for the Ohio Innocence Project. Since 2003 The University of Cincinnati’s Law School has been home to the project, and Dean Gillispie was their very first case. “Which, I was 11 years in prison by then. My mom went down there screaming and hollering, my son’s innocent.”
There was an article in the paper that the UC law school was going to be opening up an Innocence Project and Mark Godsey was going to be the director of it. One of Dean’s mother’s friends hunted Godsey down and talked to him, and he said he would look into it.
A day or two later his mother and her friend drove all the boxes down to Godsey and he who took the case.
When I comment that Dan’s mother must be a really strong and spectacular woman, he replied with pride, “My mother is very spectacular, and very strong, and from good mountain stock from eastern Kentucky, and she was on this like a pit bull on a steak I always say. She knocked on every door that had someone behind it trying to get someone to listen for years and years.”
“One hundred and sixty-eight wrongfully convicted people have been released this year, which means that every 24 hours in the United States of America someone is getting out of prison for a crime they did not commit."Dean Gillispie
Dean said that when the Innocence Project came along his family finally got some relief for those years of knocking on doors.
“They spent every dime they ever made on this stuff,” he told Renee. “And when you talk to them and they accept your case, you finally have a legal team that believes in you. Not a legal team that takes your money and is trying to do something for money. These folks believe in you and they believe you’re innocent and they will fight till the end.”
Dean reflected on that time before adding, “And what’s crazy is now, almost 33 years later, we wouldn’t take a case like mine. It’s too complicated.”
OPI is a non-profit, and Dean said that there’s a lot of people that the project just can’t help because of funding.
“I mean they spent well over a million dollars on my case,” Dean pointed out. He was told there were over 60.000 pages in his case alone.
One of the events that really helped lead to Gillispie’s exoneration was when former Ohio Attorney General Jim Petro got involved.
“Jim Petro came on and then wow, did things start changing then,” Dean said. “When the (former) Attorney General of the State of Ohio comes into the prison to visit you with your lawyer, the prison staff take notice - treatment gets a little different in there. The prison staff isn’t as hateful to you because now they have their doubts.”
“At night you’d get locked in your cell, so I’d put my music on and I’d just sit and just make art all night long. That got my mind out of that prison."Dean Gillispie
“I just knew things were going to change for me,” Dean added. Petro and his wife co-wrote a book called False Justice: Eight Myths That Convict Innocent People, which featured stories of Dean and three other wrongfully convicted people. At the time it was published, Dean was the only one of those four who had not been exonerated.
It would later have a footnote to include Dean’s justice.
“One hundred and sixty-eight wrongfully convicted people have been released this year, which means that every 24 hours in the United States of America someone is getting out of prison for a crime they did not commit,” Dean said. “So that’s a sad fact of American history that needs to be fixed. This is unacceptable.”
Gillispie recently won a $45 million civil lawsuit against the Miami Township police department and detective Scott Moore.
Dean said he would never ever do it again for $45 million dollars. “I would rather have a life of hardships and troubles that is my life, the way I choose. People who have never been in the system don’t understand how messed up it is, and won’t believe how messed up it is.”
Dean Gillispie was working at General Motors when he was arrested on charges for a cold case which had happened two years prior in 1988. He was just 24-years-old at the time, and turned 25 in the County Jail. Although he did not match the physical description of the man who committed the crimes, Gillispie was wrongfully convicted and sentenced to 22-56 years in prison.
"Everybody thinks you get released from prison, they took your life away, they’ve got to give you millions of dollars. That’s the furthest thing from the truth."Dean Gillispie
“22-56 years gets you sent to a closed max or maximum security prison. I got classed to closed max and got sent to Warren Correctional Institution in Lebanon, Ohio,” Gillispie said reflecting back on that confusing time. “70% of those people are not going home. Your life means nothing to them. You know, life period means nothing to them. So the violence you see in these prisons is crazy. It’s overwhelming.”
Gillispie said that when you’re incarcerated you need to find something to get your mind out of that violence and chaos that surrounds you—get you away from it. So he started messing around trying to build little things. His first projects were houses made out of manilla file folders, which were confiscated by the guards. Gillispie would later see these houses again in the Warden’s office on a shelf.
“(It) got to where I was allowed to do these little buildings I was doing, and that took me completely out of that prison," he said. "I would go to work and start looking for things I could use in my art, because all my art was, at that time, all found objects, all trash—whatever I could find around the prison."
When a buddy brought Dean a cassette tape of the new 1994 album “Where it all begins” by Allman Brothers Band, the song Soulshine immediately struck a chord with him. “It became a song that I listened to everyday. I still listen to it every day,” Dean said, reciting some of the lyrics:
WHEN YOU CAN’T FIND THE LIGHT TO GUIDE YOU THROUGH THE CLOUDY DAY,
WHEN THE STARS AIN'T SHINING BRIGHT YOU FEEL LIKE YOU’VE LOST YOUR WAY.
WHEN THE CANDLE LIGHT OF HOME BURNS SO VERY FAR AWAY,
NOW YOU GOTTA LET YOUR SOUL SHINE JUST LIKE MY DADDY USED TO SAY.
HE USED TO SAY SOUL SHINE
IT’S BETTER THAN SUNSHINE
BETTER THAN MOONSHINE
DAMN SURE BETTER THAN RAIN
HEY NOW PEOPLE DON’T MIND
WE ALL FEEL THIS WAY SOMETIMES
YOU GOTTA LET YOUR SOUL SHINE
SHINE TILL THE BREAK OF DAY.
“At night you’d get locked in your cell, so I’d put my music on and I’d just sit and just make art all night long. That got my mind out of that prison,” Dean said looking back on those hard times. “When I’m doing my art, I’m living what I’m building. I'm a miniature guy, on a miniature construction site, building these miniature buildings. And that’s what I think saved my life from losing my mind.”
Some of his other art would later end up in a group show with the Museum of Modern Art called Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration, like the little Airstream camper that he built out of the back of writing tablets.
“I had a buddy that worked at the quartermaster that stole me some stick pins—I was using that for the rivets. The foil was from cigarette packs to give it that aluminum look,” Dean said showing a photo.
Even though Dean was offered a lot of money for that camper and some of his other works, he has never sold any of the art he made while he was incarcerated.
“It’s the only thing that I have to show for 20 years of my life being pissed down a drain,” he said. “I’ve got my friends I’ve known my whole life that stuck with me. They’ve got children, they’ve got careers, they’ve got houses. They’ve got their whole life that you can see in these things. That art is all I have, and for years it just sat in my parents garage until that museum show.”
December 22, 2022 marks the eleventh anniversary of Dean's release from prison.
“Everybody thinks you get released from prison, they took your life away, they’ve got to give you millions of dollars. That’s the furthest thing from the truth,” Dean said when asked about the recent $45 Million award. “I’ve had to fight the whole eleven years to get to this point of possibly getting some money. They’re going to fight this verdict as hard as they can.”
Since his release, Dean spends his time working as an advocate to help others who have been wrongfully incarcerated and traveling around in his full size airstream trailer, which he calls "Soul Shine."