By Jeanine Grimes
CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA – Way back on Nov. 5, 2001, more than two decades ago, Gilbert Merritt, III, was sentenced to up to 30 years for a murder that he did not commit.
But, on July 11 of this year, the Innocence Project at the University of Virginia Law school finished its long-awaited project, removing the wrongful conviction against Merritt.
The project maintains Merritt spent 20 years incarcerated because of a corrupt detective extracting false testimony with extortion and brute force on a woman facing prison time for drug charges. The “witness” provided false information at the trial to get the accused to “confess to the murder.”
In 2011, Robert Glenn Ford, the corrupt detective, was convicted of extortion, conspiracy and false statements. There have been numerous claims about Ford: “[W]hen a case involves Ford, that’s a red flag, but we check each case that comes in fully to see if there’s merit to the person’s claims,” said the Innocence Project.
Earlier this year in January, Merritt was released from prison with a conditional pardon, but charges were not dropped until the week of July 11.
There was, said lawyers, no physical evidence that linked Merritt to the murder. He had an alibi—he was visiting his brother at the Norfolk General Hospital at the time of the murder.
The Innocence Project was able to obtain the grant of Merritt’s release because of the corrupt Ford’s past involvement.
In fact, the project members found evidence that Ford was the lead detective in the cases of Joey Carter and Kevin Knight, who were pardoned as well. Similar to Merritt’s case, Ford convinced witnesses to falsify their testimony.
In Merritt’s trial, Ford found a “desperate” and “vulnerable” witness to help build his case to convict Merritt, but the woman’s testimony had many flaws.
The Innocence Project at UVA School of Law consists of a yearlong clinic where law students can take credit and extracurricular student pro bono. Throughout the project, the law students investigated wrongful convictions just like Merritt’s case.
Nachi Baru and Meghan Wingert, two 2022 law graduates, worked on the Merritt case throughout their law school career.
Baru described the case as “an eye-opener” for him, adding that what motivated him to get involved with the Innocence Project was that “seeing people get sent away for a long time for a very serious crime based on flimsy testimony and corrupt police officers and just the miscarriage of justice.”
Many working on the case believed that “from the start that this guy [Merritt] is innocent and wanted to do [their] small part to help right this really terribly wrong.”
More recently, Merritt has been working in a Norfolk shipyard since his release from prison.
The Innocence Project paves the way for students to feel fortunate enough to work with a firm that allows law students to spend billable hours on cases like Merritt’s.
The law students understand that “not every day as an attorney is like that” and many get to come back in order to remind themselves of the reason they went to law school.