“His family believes his claim of innocence. We believe that he has a meritorious claim of innocence. We’re hoping that the DNA test shows that as well,” said Eric Haught with the West Virginia Innocence Project.
Haught is talking about a DNA test that could come any day for Charles “Manny” Kilmer and lead to his re-sentencing or release.
Kilmer has been serving a life sentence without mercy for first-degree murder at the Mount Oliver Correctional Complex since the early 1990s.
Kilmer is a veteran, and his health is failing, making the results of the test all the more critical.
“He’s extremely elderly,” Haught explained. “He suffers from a variety of medical conditions. He suffers from a neurological disease that was brought on by his exposure to Agent Orange while he was fighting in Vietnam. We’re really hoping that these test results do not point to him.”
The West Virginia Innocence project says even if the DNA results come back in Kilmer’s favor, there is still a possibility that he and others in his situation could still be found guilty, pleading to time served when prosecutors re-bring the same charges, despite proof of innocence.
“If you’re a prosecutor and you truly believe that, why would you be giving this person time served?” said Valena Beety, Director of the West Virginia Innocence Project. “If you’re doing this to protect your community, why would you be allowing this person you think is a killer on the streets? I think instead they believe like we do that he’s innocent, but they feel like they have to uphold the conviction.”
Beety said some exonerees also take what’s known as an Alford Plea, or Kennedy Plea in West Virginia, to avoid trial and begin to re-build their lives.
“You don’t have to say that you’re guilty, you just say the state has enough evidence that the jury could find me guilty and then they take the sentence of time served,” Beety explained.
“Once someone has served time in prison for a time they didn’t commit, they’re terrified to go back to trial,” she continued. “They’ve already had a jury convict them on faulty evidence or convict them despite their innocence, and there’s nothing to say it wouldn’t happen a second time.”
Those exonerees carry that guilty plea with them for the rest of their lives, something Beety says happens to their clients and nationally all too often. Something she also says the West Virginia Innocence project will continue to try to change.
For more on their efforts and clients that have been exonerated, visit wvinnocenceproject.law.wvu.edu.