“We’re in this very bizarre space, it’s very symbolic of … what’s happening all over America regarding the mass incarceration of the mentally ill,” said Benjamin Gilmer, who is unrelated but has devoted a much of the last decade defending the man who shares his name – and his profession.
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Benjamin Gilmer stumbled upon the case by a strange coincidence. In 2009, he took a job near Asheville, North Carolina, as a doctor at a rural health clinic. There, he was confronted with two troubling things about a former clinic doctor who was beloved by his patients for his generous and selfless care:
This doctor was also called Gilmer and he had murdered his father.
Benjamin Gilmer’s quest to make sense of the situation was documented in a 2013 episode of NPR’s “This American Life” and most recently in his book “The Other Dr. Gilmer,” which was published in March and is being made into a movie.
Gilmer learned that his so-called nice predecessor 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 murder, Vince Gilmer had suffered a head trauma in a car accident and had looked different since. He learned that when Gilmer was growing up, he had been the victim of horrific sexual abuse by his father.
And over time, after struggling to understand the odd behavior that convinced court officials that Vince Gilmer was trying to fake mental illness, Benjamin Gilmer came to believe that the explanation was an undiagnosed case of the illness. of Huntington. Tests later confirmed this.
East Huntington a progressive and fatal neurological disorder that causes people to act impulsively and uncontrollably. Benjamin Gilmer was convinced that illness, injury and abuse were the root of the crime, and that Vince Gilmer needed treatment, not incarceration.
He lobbied Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe (D) for clemency so Vince Gilmer could be sent to a mental health facility, but was denied. When Northam (D) took office in 2017, Gilmer thought 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 earlier this year, Northam granted a conditional pardon.
“It wasn’t easy at first,” said Clark Mercer, who served as Northam’s chief of staff. He mentioned the brutal nature of the crime, but said Northam knew about Huntington’s disease as a doctor and realized it was a complex case. .
During his final days in office, Mercer said, Northam took a second look at a number of pardon requests, including 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.
In reconsidering the Gilmer case, Mercer said, the governor was swayed by the idea of requiring the inmate to establish a “house plan” for treatment and guardianship as a condition of release. Such a requirement is common, Mercer said.
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The wording of the pardon requires Gilmer to be admitted to a treatment facility that meets “his psychiatric and medical needs,” have the plan approved by the state Department of Corrections, and pay to have his own secure transportation relocated. .
Benjamin Gilmer said state officials, by placing full responsibility on the inmate, are essentially forcing Vince Gilmer to pay a private facility for treatment when Virginia has public mental health hospitals that would be a ideal home for him – including one adjacent to the prison where he is being held at Marion in the southwestern part of the state.
In the meantime, he said, Gilmer’s condition is deteriorating. He relies on a wheelchair to get around because he is too unstable to stand. “It’s hard for him to talk. Cognitively, he is very slow at this stage. It’s hard for him to swallow,” he said, adding that aspiration — basically, choking — is a common killer for people with Huntington’s disease.
The disorder also causes him to behave erratically. Huntington patients often physically pick on their caregivers — not out of spite, 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 by email that Virginia was not using solitary confinement.
“Mr. Gilmer has been placed in restorative accommodation on some occasions, all of which were short-lived, as a direct result of his unsafe behavior towards himself or others in the facility,” Jarvela said, referring to a recent state program supposed to provide a safe environment for mentally ill inmates “I’m afraid we can’t discuss confidential incarceration and medical records any further.”
The General Assembly passed legislation in 2021 ending the use of “restrictive housing” or solitary confinement, but the ACLU and other advocacy groups have accused the program of “restorative housing” by which it was replaced back to the same.
The Corrections Department “is more than willing to release Mr. Gilmer once the terms of his clemency have been met,” Jarvela said.
Gilmer said he asked state Attorney General Jason Miyares (R) to intervene, but was denied. A spokeswoman for Miyares said her office had no role in the case. A spokeswoman for Governor Glenn Youngkin (right) said via email that ‘the individual’s early release is contingent on clemency being met’.
The plan now is to get Vince Gilmer into a private facility so he can eventually move to a public mental health hospital in North Carolina, which won’t accept transfers directly from prisons, Benjamin Gilmer said. It’s going to cost at least $100,000, he said.
This week, Benjamin Gilmer launched a GoFundMe campaign to raise this amount. By Friday afternoon, it had topped $67,000, including a $20,000 donation from musician Sting and his wife, Trudie Styler. Any additional funds raised will allow Gilmer to stay in private care longer before the transfer, Benjamin Gilmer said.
He said the situation needed to be resolved as quickly as possible.
“Everyone knows he’s terminally ill and he’s going to die. We are afraid that he will commit suicide or that he will inhale tonight and die,” he said. State officials “are not prepared to do anything to intervene, but they are prepared to let him sit there and rot in prison. “