A District Court judge has overturned the 2009 homicide conviction of Robert Wilkes, marking yet another court victory for the Montana Innocence Project.
Wilkes’ 3-month-old son Gabriel died in October 2008. More than a year later, Wilkes was convicted in the baby's death, and sentenced to 40 years in prison.
The Montana Innocence Project began to look into his case in 2012, finding that Gabriel had no signs of abuse and that the prosecution relied on the theory of Shaken Baby Syndrome in Wilkes' case.
The Innocence Project gathered a series of medical experts from around the country to review the case. They determined a number of other likely causes of his death. Also, the medical examiner who performed the autopsy had listed the cause of death as “undetermined,” something Wilkes’ defense attorney did not present at trial.
The Montana Innocence Project’s motion for a new trial for Wilkes was eventually appealed to the Montana Supreme Court, which sent it back down for further proceedings.
In an order issued Thursday, District Court Judge James Haynes of Ravalli County, who was brought in to oversee the Wilkes case, overturned the conviction. As part of his order the judge concluded that Wilkes’ attorney at trial had been ineffective in his representation of his client.
“The Court concludes (Scott Spencer) failed to subject the prosecution’s case to meaningful adversarial testing. … Wilkes has shown his Sixth Amendment right to effective counsel was violated to such a degree as to jeopardize the fundamental fairness and integrity of his trial,” the judge wrote.
“I have been waiting, hoping, and praying for this moment for many years,” Wilkes said in a statement. “The Innocence Project works tirelessly on behalf of people like me, who are wrongfully convicted. The project gives us hope. I am very grateful for their amazing and dedicated work.”
In a statement, Innocence Project attorney Toby Cook said the medical evidence they presented was “overwhelming.”
“While we have always believed in Dave’s innocence, he can never regain the 10 years he has lost,” Cook said.
Prosecutors can now appeal Haynes’ order, re-try Wilkes, or dismiss the case.
In recent years, the Montana Innocence Project has obtained exonerations for several clients, including Cody Marble, Richard Raugust, Paul Jenkins and Fred Lawrence.
A Missoula County judge is expected to rule later this year in another of the Montana Innocence Project’s cases, that of Katie Garding. Garding was convicted in 2011 of vehicular homicide in the hit-and-run death of an East Missoula man, but the Innocence Project is challenging her conviction, citing new information it believes shows she did not commit the crime.