Innocence Found

Lawyer Charlotte Whitmore ’03 fights to free wrongfully convicted prisoners the old-fashioned way: by pounding the pavement.

Charlotte Whitmore was three years out of law school in 2011 when she arrived at the Pennsylvania Innocence Project, a nonprofit in Philadelphia that works to overturn sentences of the wrongfully convicted. “I said to my supervisor, ‘Where do you want me to start?’ ” Whitmore recalls. “She pointed me to a storage closet full of boxes.” Each one represented the final hopes of an incarcerated person who had run out of options despite his claims of innocence. 

During the next few weeks Whitmore hauled out more than 100 boxes one by one, flipping through their contents and looking for anything that might prove justice hadn’t been served. One case stood out. Eugene Gilyard, 16 years old, was hanging out in his North Philly neighborhood in the early morning hours of August 16, 1995. A few blocks away a local seafood shop owner was shot and killed in a botched robbery. The only witness was the victim’s daughter, who lived across the street and watched through the blades of a fan as two men, one with a bandana covering his face, ran off into the darkness.

Police originally gave up on the murder, but three years later, a cold-case squad showed a photo of Gilyard to the witness. She was initially uncertain if he was one of the men but later testified in court that she was “absolutely sure” he was. That was enough for a jury to convict him of murder and send him to prison—for life. “That was the only evidence against him, nothing else,” says Whitmore. 

When she visited Gilyard in prison he asked, tentatively, if he should call her “Ms. Whitmore.” She insisted he call her Charlotte. “She didn’t realize how meaningful that was to me,” says Gilyard. “In those few words she told me she saw me as a human being. I knew in that moment that I was in good hands.” Gilyard swore that he was innocent, a victim of misidentification—and he’d even heard from other inmates that the real shooter was a man named Ricky Welborn, who went by the street name “Rolex.” 

Whitmore visited Rolex in prison, where he was serving a life sentence for another murder. Within a few minutes of talking with her, he confessed to the crime, providing a detailed account of how he had shot the shop owner in the knee with a sawed-off shotgun, and then Rolex’s friend shot him in the head. Despite the breakthrough, Whitmore feared the word of a convicted criminal would never hold up in court. She would need more if she was going to succeed at trial. “Corroborating the confession was really important,” she says. 

“She has this extraordinary combination of lawyering skills but is also an investigative genius.” 

For more than 25 years since the founding of the original Innocence Project, lawyers around the country have peeled back the curtain from the justice system to show how, through a combination of bias, racism, and prosecutorial misconduct, innocent people have landed in jail. To date, they’ve succeeded in freeing nearly 400 people from prison, proving in the vast majority of those cases that DNA or other forensic evidence at the scene didn’t match the incarcerated person. 

Not all cases have such evidence to examine. Whitmore, now an adjunct professor of law in the Boston College Innocence Program, is one of a few wrongful conviction lawyers who relies instead on painstaking investigation to reconstruct the crime to prove her clients didn’t do it. “She has this extraordinary combination of lawyering skills but is also an investigative genius,” says Sharon Beckman, director of the BC Program, one of the few wrongful conviction programs in the country that takes on non-forensic cases. “The cases we take in our clinic are the hardest cases, because they require fact reinvestigation,” Beckman says. “Lawyers are often thinking about the flaws in the process, but she is also thinking about what actually happened and how to prove it. It’s a whole different orientation.”

To investigate Gilyard’s case, Whitmore started by knocking on doors in North Philly. Rolex said he used the same sawed-off shotgun to shoot another person, and Whitmore tracked down that victim, who corroborated the story. She found medical records to match. She also tracked down several new eyewitnesses to the murder, including one who had told police that Rolex and his friend, “Tizz,” had shot the shop owner.

She also discovered that Gilyard’s childhood friend, Lance Felder, who was convicted along with him of the crime, had an older brother who had suggested the robbery to Rolex and Tizz in the first place. But that brother had kept quiet all of these years for fear of implicating himself. Now, with Whitmore’s encouragement, a second brother of Felder came forward to testify, tearfully admitting that he’d always known that his innocent brother was in prison, while his guilty brother was free. 

After weeks of hearings, Whitmore remained worried. “We were getting so much pushback from the prosecutor, they were fighting it tooth and nail,” she says. The lawyer was tense until the last moment, when the judge said simply, “I am going to vacate this conviction.” The entire courtroom erupted. 

“I told myself I wasn’t going to cry, but I was bawling,” says Whitmore. 

Gilyard, now living back in North Philly, is working a sales job and raising three children with his wife. The couple plans to open a scented candle business. “I don’t doubt that I would never be free if it weren’t for Charlotte’s assistance.” Gilyard says. “It’s one thing when you have an ability to do something, but she clearly has a passion for what she does.”

Whitmore grew up outside Philadelphia, the daughter of Ed Haldeman ’70, a former chair of Dartmouth’s board of trustees. Though both of her parents went to Harvard Law School, neither of them practiced while she was growing up. Her mother was a homemaker and her father worked as an investment advisor. “I didn’t know a lot about lawyers or law,” says Whitmore, sitting at her BC law school desk. Petite, with her hair tied up in a bun and a face full of freckles, she looks younger than her 38 years. As a little girl Whitmore envisioned herself an investigative reporter in the mold of Superman’s Lois Lane. “I was obsessed with her,” she says, “I wanted to go out and solve crimes.”

Whitmore played field hockey, lacrosse, and squash in high school, and colleges competed to recruit her for squash. To her father’s chagrin, she didn’t even consider Dartmouth until an assistant squash coach called, begging her to come for a short visit. “I was there maybe 12 hours, and I loved it instantly,” she says. Whitmore returned to tell her father she was applying early decision. “He was so excited—he’d been holding in his emotions for 18 years,” she says.

Squash dominated Whitmore’s time at Dartmouth. The intensity of the game, in which two players compete rapid-fire to volley a small rubber ball in an indoor court, appealed to her. “You are out there alone, so you can only depend on yourself, but your teammates are also counting on you, so it’s a lot of pressure,” says the former team captain. Her experience, she says, translates well into her current work. “Obviously I have the students’ and supervisors’ support, but sometimes it feels like it’s just me fighting for my client.”

Between her junior and senior years at Dartmouth, Whitmore participated in a summer internship at the Innocence Project in New York, assigned to the case of Dennis Maher, a Massachusetts man convicted of multiple rapes. The results of his DNA tests came back the winter of her senior year, showing that he was not the perpetrator. Whitmore drove down to Massachusetts right before graduation to see him walk free after 19 years. “I watched Dennis walk out of court, and I watched his prosecutor come to court that day and apologize and hug him,” she says. “It was powerful.”

After college she got into University of Pennsylvania Law School but deferred admission to take a two-year position as a paralegal with the federal public defender’s office in New York City. Whitmore’s job was to go into maximum security prisons to interview clients and gather information that might lead to a reduced sentence. “Most of my clients were guilty and had no problem admitting that, but everyone had a reason for doing what they did,” she says. “There is always a larger story.” The experience made her want to go into criminal defense law. “That job changed my entire trajectory,” she says. “I was hooked.” 

During her time at Penn she focused on criminal justice work, with an eye toward becoming a public defender. After law school she got two prestigious clerkships with federal judges before applying for the position as staff attorney at the Pennsylvania Innocence Project. Along with Gilyard’s case, Whitmore pulled two other boxes from that storage closet. One incarcerated man, Tyrone Jones, 16, had been picked up by the police and given a tearful confession to a shooting—the only evidence against him. The problem was, the gun he was carrying didn’t match the one used in the crime.  

Whitmore hit the pavement, interviewing witnesses and digging up documents to prove his innocence. Most lawyers are trained in writing briefs and arguing in court. “I taught myself how to investigate cases,” Whitmore says. In doing so, she uses her looks to her advantage. They enable her to come across as nonthreatening. “I always joke that white males make the worst investigators,” she says. “People think they are cops or bill collectors. I don’t look intimidating, so I can put them at ease.” Once in the door, the most important skill she has developed is just learning to listen. “I always open with, ‘I am just looking for the truth,’ ” she says. “If my client did it, I want to know that too.”

In Jones’ case, Whitmore helped find four witnesses who said he was not at the scene of the crime. She demonstrated that the gun he supposedly used couldn’t even fire bullets. Jones was freed in 2016, after 43 years in prison. 

In another case, Whitmore helped free John Miller, who had been identified as the murderer of a parking lot attendant by one witness who recanted his testimony at trial. Miller was convicted anyway. Whitmore and her colleagues discovered that the witness who identified Miller had told a fellow inmate that he was going to falsely pin the murder on Miller. Even though police had this exculpatory information, they had failed to reveal it, a violation of due process. Despite this evidence, the Project lost two times in state court before winning on appeal last June—nine years after Whitmore first took the case. 

Whitmore left Philadelphia, following her neurosurgeon husband to a new job in Boston in the summer of 2013. As fate would have it, BC Innocence Program director Beckman had just received a teaching grant from the school to hire a new professor. Whitmore started by using her cases from Philly to teach a seminar on wrongful conviction work. Expanding the program with the help of private donations in 2015, Beckman tapped Whitmore to lead a clinic in which students investigate new cases where there is no forensic evidence such as DNA. Instead, these cases often turn on issues of false identification by witnesses, forced or incentivized confessions, or prosecutorial misconduct. 

Whitmore meets two hours a week with a mix of 15 law students, grad students, and undergrad interns to discuss criminal procedure, ethics, and investigative skills in a hands-on seminar. Additional work is done outside of class to investigate some 14 cases currently in various stages of investigation and litigation. “It is through this work that they realize the effects of a wrongful conviction on a client and his family and how easily a wrongful conviction can occur,” Whitmore says. “Working with students to remedy these injustices provides me a chance to practice law in a way that inspires me, while, I hope, instilling the same passion in a new generation of lawyers.”

Beckman prizes Whitmore for her energy and focus. “I was a law clerk for Sandra Day O’Connor, who was probably the most efficient person I ever met. Charlotte comes in second,” she says. “There is no wasted energy, no nonsense, no drama.” Whitmore juggles raising three children at home in the leafy Boston suburb of Concord with prison visits, teaching, and working side-by-side with students.

Whitmore helped free Christopher “Omar” Martinez after he’d spent 20 years in prison for a murder he did not commit. Photo by Joshua Dalsimer

Her ability to compartmentalize enables her to fight for years to free someone she knows in her gut is innocent but can’t yet prove it. “Those are the hardest ones emotionally for me, because I can’t tell a judge and I can’t tell a prosecutor because I don’t have the proof, but I have talked to people and know he’s innocent,” she says. “All I can do is tell my client that I am going to do everything I possibly can.”

That is what she told Christopher “Omar” Martinez, the first person Whitmore successfully helped free after she came to Boston. Martinez had been convicted for the 1999 murder of a friend and coworker in Springfield, Massachusetts, supposedly in a fight about two sisters. Police interrogated him for the crime for seven hours, eventually coercing him to sign a confession in English, even though he spoke only Spanish at the time. After several years in prison, he began to despair. “I was feeling hopeless,” says Martinez, a big man with a gentle face and a full sleeve of tattoos. “They say there is always a door, you just need to knock on it. But this time I was like, where are the keys? Where can I find the people who will believe in me?”

He is sitting at the dining room table in Whitmore’s five-bedroom colonial home, along with Whitmore, student Lauren Rossman, and lawyer Chauncy Wood, who had been on the case since the beginning. “Initially I wanted to reinvestigate the case and find out more facts,” says Wood. “I asked the judge for $500 for an investigator, and he said no, this man doesn’t deserve $500.” The case languished for more than a decade before Wood was able to turn to Whitmore’s newly formed clinic in 2015. 

“The first thing we did was get the students to go through every piece of paper in the case, to rebuild it and figure out who we were going to talk to,” Whitmore says. Among them was an “earwitness” named Wilbert Diaz, who had overheard the shooter from the apartment next door. Even though police had his address, they failed to interview him or turn it over to the defense. With the help of a private investigator, Whitmore and Rossman were able to track him down. Diaz said that he knew the voice wasn’t Martinez’s.

Under Whitmore’s tutelage, Rossman learned to interview witnesses using the same open and gentle approach Whitmore has honed. “It works sometimes for me to play a dumb girl who doesn’t know anything,” says Rossman, a 28-year-old with long, strawberry blonde hair, who graduated from BC Law this spring. “Don’t say that!” shouts Whitmore from across the table. Rossman laughs: “If it gets somebody out of prison, I think it’s worth it.” 

As she interviewed more witnesses who said Martinez didn’t do it, Rossman discovered an inmate, Ramon Santana, who was tied to the gun used in the shooting. Whitmore and Rossman went to visit him. Almost immediately, he said that Martinez was innocent but declined to explain how he knew. Whitmore and Rossman kept him talking. “We just kept saying, ‘We understand this is hard, we’re trying to figure out the truth. We know you would want the same if your loved one was incarcerated,’ ” Whitmore says. Eventually, Santana confessed to the murder.

By the time Martinez got a new trial last April, he had a team of people behind him in the courtroom, including Wood, Whitmore, Beckman, and their students. Despite all of the evidence they’d marshaled for his case, Martinez refused to believe that after 20 years he would be free. He sat with his head down on the table. “I was falling asleep,” he says. “Then from afar I heard, ‘new trial.’ I opened my eyes and looked at my lawyers, Chauncy and Charlotte, and they were crying and hugging.” He asked Whitmore what was happening and heard the words he’d long ago given up on hearing: “You’re going home.”

Within a few hours Whitmore and her colleagues collected Martinez at the prison, where he wrapped his family in hugs with tears streaming down his face. He moved back to Springfield, where he now lives half a block from the murder scene and sometimes snaps awake in the morning to stand and shout his inmate number. For the first few months after his release he called Whitmore every day to check in. “This is my second family,” he says, motioning around the table. “And the best thing that has ever happened to me in my life, I have them to thank for.” 

Martinez now works in a warehouse, where he recently got a raise and an award for being employee of the week. Rossman has since become a staff lawyer at the Massachusetts state agency for public defenders. Whitmore continues to investigate the pile of cases in her office, rooting through boxes full of files to find that one name, that one piece of paper or hidden witness that will break open a case. “Really digging deep into what happened and finding something someone else missed is exciting work,” Whitmore says. “It can be incredibly depressing and frustrating when you hit pitfalls. But at the end of the day, I feel privileged to be able to do this.”              

Michael Blanding is a Boston-based journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, Wired, Slate, The Boston Globe Magazine, and Boston. His book, The Map Thief: The Gripping Story of an Esteemed Rare-Map Dealer Who Made Millions Stealing Priceless Maps (2014), was a New York Times bestseller.

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