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A family still fights for justice after 50 years

Help free Thomas Gilbert after half
a century 

The fate of Thomas finds itself at a standstill. Legal avenues are closed as a result of the death of both key witnesses. Without their testimonials in court, Thomas' only hope for the future now lies in community advocacy.

On a balmy night in October 1973, vacationing couple William and Eleanor Willits fell victim to a robbery. As they returned to their motel from a restaurant, pizza box in hand, the couple was cornered at gunpoint by William Watson and Allen Hicks. They were then ordered to separate, Mrs. Willits going with Watson and Mr. Willits with Hicks. In a moment of desperation, Mr. Willits threw the pizza box at his assailant, which led to him being fatally shot. Hicks and  Watson then fled the scene.

However, Hicks laid low and distanced himself from Watson following the incident. The latter was apprehended in the same white Cadillac spotted at the scene of another robbery days later and Watson was connected to the Willits murder when his fingerprint was identified on the pizza box. Thomas Gilbert had the misfortune to be in Waton’s company at this unrelated robbery. Despite a lack of physical evidence, Thomas was convicted for the Willits murder that Hicks committed based solely on eyewitness identification by the surviving victim weeks after the crime and his presence with Watson during an unrelated robbery. He was sentenced to life in prison.

Three years later, the investigation into the Willits murder was reopened as a result of a written confession from Allen Hicks to the assistant state attorney Jim Woodard. This confession led to dozens of interviews, all of which corroborated Gilbert's innocence. 

Some of the evidence produced in this investigation included: 

  • A passed polygraph test from Thomas where he denied his involvement in the murder.

  • Several confessions from Hicks and Watson where they both admitted they committed the Willits murder. 

  • A positive identification by Hicks  of the murder weapon used in the Willits robbery.

 

Despite this compelling evidence, the state chose not to prosecute  Allan Hicks and instead leftan innocent man in prison for the rest of his life. Thomas has spent an additional  45 years in prison even though authorities knew that Watson and Hicks committed the Willits murder.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Because Thomas Gilbert was in the wrong place at the wrong time, his life spiraled into ongoing wrongful incarceration spanning years. Imprisonment exacts a profound toll on the human psyche. Thomas is in isolation, away from his siblings and children, and severely struggling with his mental health. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, one in four incarcerated people experience psychological distress. A mere 20 years old at the time of his arrest, Thomas hardly experienced his adult life in the free world. His wrongful conviction directly led to his arrested development, bringing his personal and familial growth to a screeching halt. While Thomas’ acquired trauma cannot be undone or erased, it can be managed with access to proper healthcare, socialization, and the support of his loved ones. 

 

A wrongful conviction affects not only the individual who has been wrongly incarcerated but also creates a ripple effect impacting an entire community of people. Woefully, Thomas’ family has had to live the past half century knowing that their loved one has been living a life behind bars for a crime that he did not commit. In other words, his family has also been wrongfully punished. In a recent interview with IPF, Thomas Gilbert’s sister shared, “And I miss my brother, and I want him to come home. And I will do everything possible for him to come home.” Thomas’ uncle Terry was also interviewed, stating, “You know, it’s time for the state to give him a chance to live.” 

 

His family has been deprived of spending years of quality time with him. Unfortunately, Gilbert’s undeserved wrongful incarceration has also stripped him of the opportunity to be a part of his son’s life. Thomas’ son recently told IPF, “I really want him home so I can get to talk to him. I want to stay in his life.” A child deserves to have his parents in his life, and Thomas’ son was unable to have that, revealing that “It’s just been so long. The only thing I really know about him is just people telling me about him, little things here and there.”
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We Need Your Help

 

IPF’s last hope in achieving Thomas’ release and freedom rests with all of us. His freedom can now only be made possible through the support of followers like you. With Thomas’ advancing age and declining mental health, time is running out. Now more than ever, IPF will look to you, its longtime supporters, to stand with us in hopes that together we can make a vital breakthrough in this case. Your past support has already helped IPF free 32 innocent clients, helping these men and women to reunite with their families and rekindle loving bonds. It’s our hope that with your continued trust and support in IPF, Thomas Gilbert’s well-deserved freedom will be achieved sooner rather than later, as he has already spent half a century locked up away from his freedom and loved ones for a crime that he did not commit and where the true perpetrators have been identified.


It is unusual for IPF to highlight an active case. But Thomas Gilbert’s case represents a failure of our criminal legal system to credit clear evidence of actual  innocence.  IPF, alongside his family, are seeking your help to fight for Thomas’ freedom. Your past support has been critical to all of our success, and will once again be critical in advocating for Thomas’ release. 

Thomas’s story is a tragic testament to the flaws in our legal system. He was first wrongfully convicted based on scant evidence and by mere association with one of the actual assailants. When authorities were confronted with overwhelming evidence of his innocence only a few years later, they passed on their chance to fix this miscarriage of justice. He has languished in prison for more than 50 years, separated from his loved ones, and denied the freedom that he rightfully deserves.  

At IPF, we refuse to accept this outcome and let injustice and despair win. You can support our continued efforts to free Thomas by signing our petition, spreading the word about this injustice, and financially investing in our fight for Thomas Gilbert’s life and the lives of other wrongfully convicted clients. 

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