On June 1, 1985, Kathryn Wilhoit’s throat was slashed in the Tulsa, Oklahoma apartment she shared with her two infant daughters. Ms. Wilhoit had recently separated from her husband, Gregory Wilhoit, who became the leading suspect. Gregory Wilhoit was arrested and charged with capital murder on January 16, 1986.
After his arraignment, Wilhoit and his lawyers ran into serious interpersonal conflicts; Wilhoit eventually dismissed them, and they were allowed to withdraw from the case. Just three weeks before the trial, Wilhoit was assigned a new lawyer.
The trial was held in May 1987. The prosecution argued that Wilhoit had visited his estranged wife on the night of the murder, and killed her in the course of an argument. No physical evidence was found at the crime scene, and attorneys based their case on a bite mark on the victim’s breast. Two dentists with no forensic experience testified that the mark could be conclusively linked to Wilhoit, and that a rare form of bacteria found on the wound was consistent with bacteria from Wilhoit’s mouth.
Wilhoit’s parents had hired a forensic expert who disagreed that the bite mark could be used to connect Wilhoit to the crime, but the defense attorney did not interview this expert, or conduct any other investigation on the matter. On May 15, 1987, Wilhoit was convicted, and five days later he was sentenced to death.
In a 1988 petition to the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals, a new team of defense attorneys presented evidence from 11 forensic odontologists testifying that the bite mark did not match Wilhoit, and that the bacteria found on the wound were common, not rare. The defense also presented evidence that Wilhoit’s trial lawyer had suffered a serious brain injury a year before the trial, and that he had been abusing alcohol and prescription drugs before and during the trial. On July 3, 1990, the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals ordered a hearing to consider evidence that Wilhoit had received ineffective assistance from his attorney. On April 16, 1991, the Court reversed the conviction and remanded it for retrial.
Wilhoit was acquitted and released from prison on March 31, 1993, when a Tulsa County judge found that the prosecution had failed to present enough evidence to warrant a jury trial. He later filed a civil suit against the state, but as of June 2011, he had not received any compensation.
- Alexandra Gross