After more than two decades of maintaining his innocence after a murder conviction, Norfolk native Gilbert Merritt III was officially exonerated last week as a result of years of effort by the Innocence Project at University of Virginia Law.
Merritt was released from prison in January on a conditional pardon and was formally exonerated on July 11.
The clinic expects Governor Glenn Youngkin to vacate Merritt’s conviction, which would make the exoneration official and prevent any future appeals to his freedom.
The Innocence Project at UVa Law has been working on the case since 2018, when part of the team consisted of students who are now alumni.
“There were about a dozen or so [students] that made the trip to Norfolk for the proceedings,” said James F. Neale, UVA alum and partner at McGuireWoods. “The students definitely deserve credit for doing the grunt work.”
Merritt was convicted in 2011 for a murder that occurred the same day his brother was shot and in the hospital. Merritt’s alibi in the trial was that he was in the hospital with his family while his brother fought for his life.
The team at UVa Law helped overturn Merritt’s conviction, which was entirely based on testimony from a woman who faced drug charges and was convinced to lie in exchange for less jail time by a detective who faced criminal charges for similar acts of coercion and extortion.
Ex-Norfolk detective Robert Glenn Ford has since been convicted of federal charges including extortion, conspiracy to commit extortion and making false statements. Those are the same practices he used to close Merritt’s case.
After Merritt was sentenced to 30 years behind bars, his family began examining his prosecution and eventually contacted the woman who testified against him.
The family encouraged the Innocence Project to meet with the woman in 2020.
“She admitted to testifying against him,” Neale said. “And for the first time, she admitted that Ford had put her up to it.”
In Merritt’s case, the woman who was the prosecution’s main witness testified that he confessed to the murder over the phone on the night of the crime. Her story did not align with testimony from witnesses who were at the crime scene, but could not identify the killer.
According to Neale, the witness testified that the gun, victim and gunman were in a different location than where authorities found them. She also claimed the gunman wore a hat or hood when other witnesses said he was not wearing either.
With no physical evidence, phone records, search warrants, or weapons from the shooting, Merritt’s fate rested on the woman’s word despite the fact that he had an alibi of being in the hospital with his family all day and night as they looked after his brother.
On his final days in office, former governor Northam issued Merritt a conditional pardon on Jan. 13, 2022. The pardon allowed his release from prison, but he was not exonerated until last week.
Merritt’s case is the Innocence Project’s third exoneration of an innocent man who was convicted while Ford served as the lead detective. The clinic also cleared the names of recently pardoned clients Joey Carter and Kevin “Suge” Knight.
Knight was convicted of a 2002 murder in Norfolk. He was sentenced to life in prison plus 15 years. As in Merritt’s case, no physical or forensic evidence connected Mr. Knight to the crime and recently, key witnesses recanted their testimony.
Carter was convicted in 1989 of a Norfolk murder, robbery, attempted robbery and burglary he did not commit. His conviction was based largely on the eyewitness identification of one neighbor.
Fingerprints found at the crime scene matched a man who cooperated with police and testified against Carter, and Carter’s conviction came despite an alibi and evidence that he received a significant amount of money in a workers’ compensation claim for an injury that had left him without full use of his dominant hand.
Mr. Carter received two life sentences plus 30 years. He was released on parole in 2016 after serving more than 25 years.
“[Ford is] the detective who got four sailors to wrongfully confess to a murder and rape they didn’t commit in the Norfolk Four case,” Neale said. “And he’s the detective who got three minors, a couple of whom are learning disabled, to confess to a murder in 1990, called the Lafayette Grill case, that they didn’t participate in.”
The Innocence Project represents an array of wrongfully convicted Virginians, including some who have been released on conditional pardons or parole but are not fully exonerated. Students work in case teams to exonerate wrongfully convicted Virginians.
Students investigate and litigate wrongful convictions throughout the state, according to the project’s website. Some of the cases have forensic evidence, including DNA, but most do not.