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Bennett says that after he visited Gabriel in Spokane, he reported back to Spencer. After that, he didn't hear from the attorney again. "I didn't get to see the autopsy report, I didn't get to see the autopsy in general," Bennett says. "If they determine they don't need any more work by you, then you don't work for them anymore."
The Innocence Project says in court filings that Spencer's failure to mention the controversy surrounding SBS is "inexcusable."
Spencer declined an interview request from the Independent.
Wilkes isn't the only one facing a triad-based prosecution in Montana. On Nov. 14, District Judge James P. Reynolds sentenced 26-year-old Michael Reim of Helena to 10 years in the Montana Department of Corrections' custody for aggravated assault. Reim was convicted of inflicting high-force trauma onto his 6-month-old son.
Reim's attorney, public defender Jennifer Streano, requested the judge decide the case, rather than a jury, because of its complexity. The Reim case centered on two triad symptoms and, after digesting the massive amount of technical information presented by experts, the judge found the child, referred to as A.R. in court documents, sustained "a serious and protracted loss or impairment of the function of the brain and eyes."
During Reim's trial, prosecution experts, including Robert Stears, a neuroradiologist from St. Vincent's hospital in Billings, found after examining high-tech brain scans that A.R. sustained non-accidental trauma. Other doctors, including physicians from St. Vincent's and the Primary Children's Medical Center in Utah, concurred.
Michael Laposata, a clinical pathologist at Vanderbilt University Medical Center who volunteered his time on behalf of the defense, said that A.R. had a blood clotting disorder that was responsible for the symptoms. Two doctors from Stanford University Medical Center agreed that A.R. suffered from illness, not trauma.
"They are looking at the same thing, and come up with two different conclusions," says Reim's defense attorney.
Experts also disagreed on the case of Nevada Ugalde, a Billings resident. Ugalde told law enforcement she briefly left 8-month-old Isaiah Napier in a crib on June 11, 2008. When Ugalde came back from doing laundry, she found that Isaiah had fallen onto the floor.
- Photo by Chad Harder
- Wilkes is currently serving 40 years in the Montana Department of Corrections’ custody.
Doctors found significant brain injuries, and prosecution witnesses testified during Ugalde's trial that there was no way Isaiah could have hurt himself that badly simply falling from his crib. The crib was 32 inches above a carpeted floor.
Ugalde's public defender, Tanya Dvarishkis, says that her client, who was 20 when she was charged, consistently refused to admit guilt even when offered increased visits with her own son.
"You get to know people as a defense attorney," Dvarishkis told the Independent. "This girl just didn't have it in her."
John Plunkett, a Minnesota-based forensic pathologist, testified on Ugalde's behalf and called the triad bad science. "It's bunk," he told the Independent in a recent interview.
Despite Plunkett's testimony, Ugalde was sentenced to 15 years in prison and ordered to pay $1.4 million in restitution to help cover Isaiah's future medical needs.
The Billings Gazette reports that, as of last year, Isaiah "had four surgeries on his eyes, must wear braces on his legs and is attending classes at a special-education school and taking speech therapy to learn to talk."
A.R. has recovered and is living in foster care.
Wilkes had a bad feeling during his trial. He could tell the jury hadn't warmed to him or his story because they wouldn't make eye contact. He concedes that his tattoos and gruff voice may not have helped matters. "A lot of it might have to do with my image," he says.
Before he was charged, Wilkes would read newspaper articles about parents who hurt their children. He became angry thinking that an adult could do that to a child. Wilkes doesn't rush to judgment so quickly these days, he says. "Crazy way to go about changing your thinking, huh?"
Wilkes tries to keep busy in prison and reads a lot. He likes Tom Clancy and Steven King, especially King's novella, Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption. Wilkes identifies with the story's protagonist, Andy Dufresne, an innocent man who's sent to jail for killing his wife and her lover.
"Andy Dufresnehe got his against the system," Wilkes says. "I can relate with that."
If the Innocence Project's attempt to exonerate him fails, Wilkes won't go before the parole board until 2017. He says he doesn't see parole as likely. "I can't blame them, because if somebody was guilty of what they charged me with, I wouldn't give them a chance," he says.
In the meantime, Wilkes marks Gabriel's birthday every year. He also commemorates the day his son died. Among the things that most troubles Wilkes is that his son's ashes remain in a purple drawstring bag tucked away at Wilkes' brother's house. Gabriel never had a funeral service or memorial.
"I think about that constantly," Wilkes says. "It's just unfinished."This story was updated on Dec. 7.