LONDON, Ohio — The first place Roger Dean Gillispie went after 20 years in prison was a bowling alley. There in the worn-out, rain-soaked foyer, he danced without music in his mother’s arms while his father and dozens of supporters watched Thursday night.
“We did it, Daddy,” he said.
Gillispie, convicted of rape and other crimes in 1991, has fought for his freedom since his conviction. U.S. Magistrate Judge Michael R. Merz, ordered him released on electronic home detention after declaring Gillispie’s trial unfair.
State officials refused to allow the media and supporters on the prison grounds, so the reunion was moved to the bowling alley.
There, the U.S. Marshals lashed a tracking bracelet to Gillispie’s ankle. He was turned over to his family to make the journey to his family’s home in Fairborn.
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Less than two hours after his release, the 46-year-old Gillispie stepped off the limo bus parked in front of the house he hadn’t seen in 20 years, got on the ground and kissed the wet street before grabbing his parents and hugging them.
“I was expecting to lay down tonight in the prison,” Gillispie said. “What else can you say? It’s unbelievable.”
Merz’s order granted the state’s request for a stay, pending an appeal, of his decision last week that Gillispie did not get a fair trial in 1991 when he was convicted of rape, kidnapping and aggravated robbery.
Merz had ordered the state to either retry him by July 1 or free him from prison, but any retrial would happen after review by the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals.
“This is the best Christmas present we could have or need,” said Gillispie’s mother, Juana. “I turned on my Christmas music for the first time in years.”
Gillispie will have to remain within the Southern District of Ohio, made up of the state’s 44 southern counties, Merz wrote.
“Assuming he is innocent, as he has consistently claimed, staying the case without bond would cause him the irreparable injury of deprivation of his liberty for at least as long as the appellate review takes,” Merz wrote. “If he is guilty, as two juries have unanimously found, he has nonetheless been severely punished up to this point in time.”
The Ohio Attorney General’s Office filed a notice of appeal on Dec. 16, one day after Merz issued his order.
“For him to be home at Christmas, this is kind of a dream come true,” said Mark Godsey, director of the Ohio Innocence Project. Godsey and former Ohio Attorney General Jim Petro have represented Gillispie for the past several years.
Neither Petro nor Godsey were at the Gillispie home, which was packed with friends and relatives. A sign that states “We Love You Dean,” with signatures, was stapled to the garage.
That sign dates back to a wedding where Gillispie was supposed to be best man, Gillispie said.
He noted that he was meeting his friends’ children for the first time, children he had watched grow up in pictures.
Gillispie thanked the Ohio Innocence Project, a group that works to release people in prison it believes were wrongfully convicted, and his family and friends, who never stopped supporting him. He noted that someone accused of such heinous crimes could usually expect to lose friends.
“I never lost a single one,” Gillispie said. “They never flinched one time.”
In a statement released Thursday afternoon, the Montgomery County Prosecutor’s Office said, “We continue to support the three victims in this case, who all positively identified Gillispie as the man who raped them.”
Merz’s decision last week said the prosecution improperly withheld from the defense, and the jury, the fact that the original investigating Miami Twp. police detectives eliminated Gillispie as a suspect.
Quoting case law, Merz said that information “could reasonably be taken to put the whole case in such a different light as to undermine confidence in the verdict.”
The three victims in the case testified that Gillispie was the perpetrator, but there was “absolutely no physical evidence that connected Mr. Gillispie to the crimes,” Merz wrote.
Gillispie’s attorneys claim Gillispie, who was about to be married, was “plucked out of normal life,” charged with crimes he didn’t commit and wrongly imprisoned.
The defense has identified another man it contends was the likely perpetrator.
Gillispie was given sentences totaling 22 years to 56 years after a jury in February 1991 convicted him of nine counts of rape, three counts of kidnapping, three counts of gross sexual imposition and one count of aggravated robbery, some of which carried firearms specifications.
The crimes occurred in August 1988 in Harrison Twp. and Miami Twp.
Gillispie has fought his conviction for two decades. Merz overruled a state appellate court, which had determined that the withheld evidence likely would not have changed the outcome of the trial.