Dave Wilkes reflects on two years of freedom

“Am I bitter about some of it? Yeah. But then too, I am beyond blessed,” said Montana Innocence Project freed client Dave Wilkes.

Dave was wrongfully convicted in 2008 for the death of his son Gabrielle based on the controversial and unproven diagnosis Shaken Baby Syndrome. Dave was released in July 2018 pending a new trial, but on January 29, 2020, he was freed following a plea deal. Since then, Dave has remained a fierce advocate for innocence issues, namely Shaken Baby Syndrome and mental health barriers facing returning citizens, and is laying low in his new home near friends and family. 

Dave Wilkes sits outside surrounded by trees in the Rattlesnake area of Missoula
Dave Wilkes enjoying the outdoors at the Rattlesnake area of Missoula a few days after his release from wrongful incarceration (Photo courtesy of Dave Wilkes)

On the day of his release, former MTIP Legal Director Larry Mansch and Dave’s brother Tony picked him up from the Montana State Prison. After taking some pictures and a celebratory stop at Cracker Barrel, Dave had to get to work finding a place to live. 

“I had to have a physical address that they could release me to because I was on pre-release again. This was prior to the second trial that would have happened,” Dave said. “Luckily, I was able to get a hold of a rental property in Missoula, and they fast-tracked my application. My brother Tony co-signed for me. And thank God for my brother’s credit because all of my credit was shot, you know, because of going inside.”

Dave lost everything when he was wrongfully convicted including his home. He had to completely start over. Once they found an apartment, Tony and Dave went to Walmart to get the necessities for his new place and other items like clothes. Dave lived in Missoula for a year before, but as soon as the courts allowed it, he moved to Missouri for a fresh start. 

“And here we are,” Dave said. “I own a half-acre. I’ve got an eight-foot by 45-foot Conex. I own two vehicles. Slowly rebuilding, but I’m getting there. That’s pretty much the last four years aside from all of the paperwork.”

Dave is referring to the period of time that he was still being wrongfully supervised by the Department of Corrections on pre-release. He had to regularly drug test and check-in. 

“Which is pretty sad considering that I’m not guilty,” Dave said. 

He was on pre-release because the state was pursuing a new trial. From his release in July 2018 to his plea in January 2020, Dave faced the fear of being locked up as an innocent person again. Just before the trial, prosecutors offered Dave to plead guilty to a charge of child engagement in exchange for time served. Understandably, he took it, despite being innocent of that crime as well. 

“That whole thing still leaves a bad taste in my mouth because here’s the thing: I didn’t want to go before another jury, have them hear the same tired horse shit, and have them convict me again,” Dave said. “So I went ahead and took a plea deal that I shouldn’t have, but I was tired. I didn’t know how things were going to play out. I knew I had the truth backing me, but I had the truth backing me in 2008 too, and we see where that ended up.” 

Since being out, Dave has been instrumental in MTIP’s efforts to educate the public about the realities of wrongful convictions. He has participated in multiple events and told his story in several community features. His advocacy efforts were present even while wrongfully incarcerated; Dave was interviewed for the groundbreaking documentary “The Syndrome,” which features scientists and legal experts arguing against the existence of Shaken Baby Syndrome. 

“The biggest reason why I try to pay it forward is, first off, is for my son,” Dave said. “He didn’t get a chance. They didn’t give him a chance. They didn’t give him a chance to tell his story or live his story, and the fact that I am still here, and he’s not…I have to do this. I have to. As a father, as a dad, anybody else that’s gone through this. Any parent that’s gone through this. I know what they feel. I’ve gone through it. I’ve been there. I still go through it. For me, that’s the biggest reason. He didn’t get a chance to utter his first words or say anything, and now I have to be his voice. If I have to be his voice, and my voice, and the unfortunate parents who go through this bullshit, I will do that. … That’s what it comes down to. The people without a voice.” 

When he is not sharing his and Gabrielle’s stories and educating about the causes and effects of wrongful convictions, Dave is enjoying his new life in Missouri. His property is outside of town. Dave said it is peaceful, and whenever he wants some noise, he always has his headphones, which usually have Godsmack, Judas Priest, or Slayer coming out of them. He lives near his other brother Tim, and he loves the community he lives in.

“Yeah, I’ve lost a lot, but to be thankful that I’m back out,” Dave said. “And be thankful that I can enjoy this sunshine out here and not be locked in a cell. Being thankful to make my own choices. I am taking each day as I can. Some are a little rougher than others, but I am still here, and I am remaining free. I’m trying to get back to what I used to be. I don’t know if that’s ever going to happen, but I’m trying.”