The Other Dr. Gilmer – North Carolina Criminal Law

It may have something to do with my day-job, but in my free time I generally prefer to read fiction. I made an exception recently for Dr. Benjamin Gilmer’s 2022 nonfiction work, The Other Dr. Gilmer: Two Men, A Murder, and an Unlikely Fight for Justice. I’m glad I did.

The book is a page-turning memoir and legal thriller chock full of North Carolina people and places (Governor Cooper even has a cameo). It also is an indictment of how American society treats (or leaves untreated) the mentally ill, particularly those who are imprisoned.

Dr. Benjamin Gilmer is graduate of Davidson College and East Carolina University’s School of Medicine who began his medical career in 2009 at the Cane Creek Family Health Center, a six-room clinic serving a rural community about 30 minutes southeast of Asheville. Cane Creek had only recently reopened when Benjamin joined its staff, having closed more than three years earlier after its founder, Dr. Vince Gilmer (no relation) was charged with, and ultimately convicted of, first degree murder for killing his ailing father, Dalton Gilmer, and depositing his body on the side of the road near Abington, Virginia.

Benjamin Gilmer writes of his passion for rural medicine and his efforts to forge meaningful connections with his patients and the community he served. As he tells it, that passion quickly became intertwined with a consuming curiosity about his predecessor, the other Dr. Gilmer, who was beloved by his former patients. Those patients told Benjamin that Vince had been a caring, generous, gentle-giant of man — too kind-hearted to kill even the mice that invaded the clinic. Benjamin struggled to reconcile that description with what he knew about the murder: Vince had killed Dalton on the very evening that Dalton, a schizophrenic, had been discharged from a two-year-stay in a psychiatric hospital. Vince had driven to Broughton Hospital in Morganton, picked Dalton up, driven north toward the North Carolina/Tennessee border, and sometime afterwards, strangled Dalton with a dog leash. Before putting Dalton’s body on the side of the road, Vince had used gardening shears to cut off all ten of Dalton’s fingers.

So in 2012, Benjamin teamed up with Sarah Koenig, then a reporter for This American Life (who would later became famous for her investigation of the Adnan Syed murder trial on the podcast Serial), to dig into Vince’s case. The two first met Vince in January 2013 at Wallens Ridge State Prison in Big Stone Gap, Virginia, where Vince was serving a sentence of life without parole. Benjamin describes being shocked by Vince’s appearance: he was unsteady on his feet, appeared far older than his years, his face and fingers twitched uncontrollably, and he had difficulty speaking. He began to doubt whether Vince could have premeditated his father’s murder. Benjamin subsequently learned that Vince had represented himself at trial, and had done an exceedingly poor job of it. Vince insisted that at the time of the murder he was hearing voices and was insane because he had stopped taking an anti-depressant. But Vince had neither an evaluation nor an expert witness to support his claims of mental illness. The State, on the other hand, had evidence of a grisly murder, Vince’s confession to killing his father, and the results of a court-ordered psychiatric evaluation, finding Vince competent to stand trial and deeming him sane at the time of the murder. The psychiatrist who examined Vince testified that Vince’s shuffling, facial tics, constant arm movements, and his claims of hearing voices were consistent with malingering (faking his symptoms).

Benjamin kept digging, enlisting a psychiatrist-friend to meet with Vince, and eventually convincing a prison psychiatrist (who did not believe that Vince was faking his many symptoms) to order genetic testing to determine whether Vince might have Huntington’s Disease. I won’t spoil the plot – you’ll have to read the book to learn about the test results. From there, the book chronicles Benjamin’s dogged efforts to secure Vince’s release from prison, including his partnership with the law firm of Hunton and Williams to pursue a gubernatorial pardon for Vince.

Benjamin ultimately uses Vince’s story as a platform from which he advocates for large-scale system and prison reform, positing that the American prison system has abandoned efforts to rehabilitate, treat, and heal in favor of a focus on isolation and punishment. Regardless of whether you ascribe to Benjamin’s point of view, his perspectives, borne of Vince’s experience and based in part on data, are thought-provoking. Many may reject some of Benjamin’s more extreme stances, such as “abolishing the prison system as we know it,” but just as many may agree that undiagnosed and untreated mental illnesses puts “prisoners at risk for violence, worsening mental disease, and—once they are freed—a higher rate of recidivism.”

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