Catholic Sentinel photos by Ed Langlois
Gregory Wilson walks down Commercial Street in Salem to buy groceries for his family.   
Catholic Sentinel photos by Ed Langlois
Gregory Wilson walks down Commercial Street in Salem to buy groceries for his family.  
 
Gregory Wilson, once an inmate on Oregon's death row, felt like a "cave man" when he was released last year after 21 years in prison.

A steadfast Catholic faith has helped Wilson manage the rocky re-entry process, including complicated cell phones, grocery store scanners and skeptical employers. Prayer has allowed him to grapple with the crime and ever-evolving punishment that left a young woman dead and his life stalled for decades.

No one denies that Wilson, now 47, was present around the time a Portland street kid named Misty Largo was slain in 1992. But there is contention over what role he played.

At first convicted of murder and sentenced to death, in 1996 he was acquitted of homicide by the Oregon Supreme Court. But kidnapping and assault convictions remained. Wilson resolutely refused plea deals for decades, insisting he did not take part in the crimes.

A model prisoner from the start, he eventually pled no contest to manslaughter on the eve of a third trial, saying his wife had waited for him long enough. Though it irked him to stop fighting to proclaim his innocence, the move saved an estimated five years of trials and got him a set release date.

Wilson grew up in North Portland and was an altar boy at now-closed Queen of Peace Church. He attended Peninsula grade school and Jefferson High School. He entered the Navy and was assigned to the submarine fleet.

He was 25 at the time of the Largo murder, running with a bad crowd and causing trouble, he admits. But killing people was not on his agenda.

In his first trial, his lawyers simply put up no defense, even though the prosecution's case relied on accomplices to the murder who exchanged testimony for greatly reduced sentences. The prosecution also shifted the reported date of Largo's death to make it look more like Wilson was guilty.   

"I couldn't blame the jury," Wilson says.

In 1994, while on death row, Wilson had what he calls "an epiphany." He had been watching his fellow inmates lapsing into mental and spiritual decay. With nightmares beginning to haunt him, he knew he could not let his own anger at wrongful persecution drive him mad.

"I decided I didn't want to be that guy lying down," he says. "I had to confront my demons."

He honestly assessed himself — the bad along with the good.

"I got right with God," he says. "I was seeing what I could become and I wanted no part of it."

On death row, Wilson learned not to judge others, deciding to leave that up to God.

Because of his good behavior, he was appointed liaison between penitentiary staff and death row inmates. He was president of the African American prisoners' club. In the prison yard, inmates asked his advice on all kinds of matters.

It was then Wilson felt confident that he would some day be released.

He had met attorney Richard Wolf, who took over the automatic death sentence appeal. After only a few years, Wolf knocked out the state's murder prosecution.

"It's another example of the justice system in which it depends on who you get for your lawyer," Wolf says. "It also illustrates the danger of using snitches."

Now serving life for the Largo murder is Grant Charboneau, also convicted of ordering the death of his own double-amputee father and a 15-year-old boy. Charboneau later gave an affidavit saying Wilson was not part of the killing, as did one of the witnesses for the prosecution.

Wilson admits that he hated the witnesses who testified that he was guilty. But he has moved past that now. He credits his faith for saving him and is especially thankful to his father, Jim Wilson, sacristan at Holy Cross Parish in North Portland. During incarceration, Wilson spoke with his father and his step-mother almost daily. His own mother had died when he was a toddler. Wilson calls his childhood with a big group of siblings "wonderful."

After the murder acquittal, he was transferred to Santiam Correctional Institution. There, he helped the prison chaplain's office, serving as the subject of an intake training video for inmates. He spoke to youth panels and set up holiday dinners for inmates.

Wilson also worked in the law library, researching for his own defense and gaining experience as a legal aid. He helped fellow inmates with their wills and other legal matters.

He's hoping to find work in the field now, but is having the same trouble getting hired that most ex-cons have. He argues that his death row experience gives him a unique perspective. He hopes to take formal legal assistant classes and will be speaking out against the death penalty.

He calls capital punishment a waste of time.

"The state does not issue life to the state should not be able to take it away," he says.
Catholic leaders, including Portland Archbishop Alexander Sample, have spoken up in opposition to the death penalty for similar reasons.    

It irks Wilson that crime websites pop up and show his mug shot and call him a murderer. He is trying to have those pages taken down, but also is praying his way through the resentment.

On the middle finger of his left hand, Wilson wears a ring fashioned out of a button from a pair of prison blue jeans, the ones he wore on death row.

"It reminds me of strength," he says. "It reminds me of the ability of God to get you out of anything."