In 1991, soon after he was sentenced to 56 years in an Ohio prison for a crime he did not commit, Roger Dean Gillispie began pestering fellow inmates to save the tinfoil from their tobacco pouches. He also gathered discarded teabags and cassette tapes—anything he could get his hands on to serve as makeshift building materials.
Then each evening, after he returned to his cell from one of his prison jobs, he devoted countless hours to creating a model of a shiny, vintage Airstream camper. It was, for him, a symbol of freedom—of the day when he would prove his innocence, leave prison behind, and see the country in just such a camper.
“Art was my daily escape,” Dean recalled. “It allowed me to live in the world that I was creating. The prison was short one inmate because, in my mind, I wasn’t there.”
“I was seeing the country in that little Airstream camper.”
Dean was a popular, all-American 25-year-old with a clean record and bright future in 1990, when he was plucked from the obscurity of his job as a security guard at a General Motors plant and arrested. A disgruntled co-worker had fingered him as a suspect in a string of three unsolved rapes near Dayton, Ohio.
Unfortunately for Dean, his co-worker also was a friend of the detective in charge of the investigation.
The detective, it later became apparent, put Dean in his crosshairs and developed a serious case of tunnel vision. It would cost Dean the next two decades of his life.
The human tendency toward tunnel vision is perhaps the leading cause of wrongful convictions. It occurs when an investigator develops an initial belief or suspicion which then becomes so embedded that all information encountered is interpreted or twisted to confirm that belief.
It’s a common human tendency that arises in a variety of situations in our lives. As I wrote in my recent book, Blind Injustice:
Tunnel vision served an important purpose in bygone eras.
…Evolution favored quick decisions and the ability to ignore distractions while remaining wedded to the most obvious option. As a result, our brains innately engage in what are called “heuristics”—hardwired mental shortcuts that help us to make decisions quickly—jumping to conclusions, one could even say, without getting bogged down in too many distracting details.
But psychologists have realized that while heuristics were necessary in past eras, and can be helpful in many aspects of life today, they can sometimes lead to disastrous results in our complex world. And in the criminal justice system, our innate psychological instincts can cause serious problems if we’re not aware of them and don’t try to keep them in check.
An Unlikely Suspect
Dean was an unlikely suspect.
He did not match the physical description of the rapist that the victims had given after the assaults, which occurred in August 1988. For example, the rapist had a dark tan and reddish brown hair; Dean is so pale he burns instead of tans, and has had graying hair since the ninth grade.
Yet the detective got all three victims to identify Dean as their attacker by presenting him in a six-person photo lineup that was ridiculously suggestive.
Dean’s photo “was all but circled and starred,” a local newspaper later noted. Dean’s photo had a yellow background, while the other five were blue. Dean’s had a matte finish; the others were glossy. The victims described the rapist as having a wide face; Dean’s photo was a close-up, so that his face took up the entire frame, while the other five photos depicted the individuals from the chest up.
By the time the three victims chose Dean’s photo from the lineup, nearly two years had passed since the rapes. Memory experts universally agree that identifications made this long after the crime are unreliable, particularly when obtained by a detective with tunnel vision, who uses suggestive techniques to get the identification he wanted.
The detective also improperly manipulated the victims by saying that Dean was their attacker and falsely telling them that he might look different in court because he had colored his hair to trick them. The detective attempted to influence other witnesses by lying about Dean’s past to help convince them he was guilty.
At trial, Dean and numerous witnesses testified that he was camping and boating out in Kentucky at the time of the crimes. Initially, the jury split 8-4 in favor of acquittal, but following pressure from the judge to reach a resolution, the jury ultimately returned a guilty verdict.
Dean was sentenced to 22 to 56 years in prison.
Prison is bad enough for anyone, but for someone who is innocent, it’s a living hell.
“I had life by the horns before this happened,” Dean says now.
He spent his 20’s, 30’s and most of his 40’s in a seven foot -by-nine-foot cell, while his friends went on to great successes in their careers, got married and had families.
“All I could do was watch in misery at what could have been for me,” he later recalled.
But Dean did not give up. He “screamed and hollered” about his innocence for years until he caught the attention of a TV news reporter in Cincinnati, Laure Quinlivan, who aired a series of reports exposing the many flaws in the detective’s investigation.
In 2003, the Ohio Innocence Project (OIP) at the University of Cincinnati College of Law, which I co-founded and direct, took the case. We made two important discoveries.
First, Dean’s work-place enemy had tried to implicate Dean shortly after the rapes when two more-experienced detectives were in charge of the case, but those detectives quickly eliminated him as a suspect. They wrote a report outlining their reasons, including that Dean couldn’t fit into the pants worn by the rapist (one of the victims had seen the size on a tag inside the rapists’ pants).
There were other discrepancies as well and so they officially eliminated Dean as a suspect and moved on.
Subsequently, the two detectives retired, and both moved out of state; the case still unsolved. That’s when the detective who was a friend of Dean’s work-place enemy took over the case and the reports documenting the elimination of Dean as a suspect disappeared from the police file.
And so, at trial, Dean and his attorney—and more importantly, the jury—did not know Dean had been cleared.
Second, the re-investigation also identified the likely rapist as a man who lived in the Dayton area and who posed as an undercover police officer, flashed a badge, accused the women of shoplifting, then abducted and sexually assaulted them.
In 2011, based on this evidence, Dean’s convictions were vacated in both federal and state courts. After 20 years in prison, Dean was released.
But he was not completely free. The prosecutors refused to admit that they had made a mistake. Rather than investigate the alternate suspect or the detective’s misconduct, they appealed in an attempt send him back to prison.
The tunnel vision that had so infected the police investigation had similarly poisoned the prosecution—an unfortunately common phenomenon in wrongful conviction cases. The result is that police and prosecutors become so fixated on a suspect that when evidence of innocence surfaces years later, denial sets in and the new evidence is not reviewed objectively, but rather through their twisted prism.
In Blind Injustice, I wrote at length about the psychological factors that cause prosecutors to move into a state of denial in post-conviction innocence cases rather than face the facts.
These include cognitive dissonance, bureaucratic evil (“groupthink” mentalities where the goals of the institution—the prosecutor’s office—replace the conscience of the individual actors) and the engrained dehumanization of criminal defendants that occurs in prosecutors’ offices.
But justice finally prevailed on July 26, 2017—six years after Dean’s release—when the Ohio Supreme Court denied the prosecution’s last appeal. Dean’s exoneration was complete.
One week earlier, Dean completed his makeover of his real 1963 Airstream camper that he had purchased for next to nothing after his release. During the six years the prosecutors spent appealing, Dean spent month after month fixing it up with the same investment of emotional and physical devotion as he had put into the model camper in prison.
He named the camper “Soulshine,” after an Allman Brothers song he listened to on headphones the many nights he worked in his cell on his beloved model.
When you can’t find the light that guides you in the cloudy days,
When the stars ain’t shining bright and you feel like you’ve lost your way,
When those candle lights of home burn so very far away,
Well, you’ve got to let your soul shine.
Dean does not blame the victims.
He thinks they were violated twice — once by the rapist and then by the criminal justice system. Although Dean has sued the officials responsible for unjustly taking away his freedom, he is moving on with his life.
Soon he will take his camper and head out to see the places he dreamed about in his tiny prison cell. Wherever he goes, the model camper he made so many years ago will be with him—a reminder to always let his soul shine.
Mark Godsey is a professor of law at the University of Cincinnati and co-founder of the Ohio Innocence Project. He began representing Dean Gillispie in 2003. Dean’s story, as well as the psychological concepts of tunnel vision and innocence denial, are chronicled in Godsey’s new book “Blind Injustice.” Readers’ comments are welcome.